Henry V | Inside the Rehearsal Room
Henry V– Week Four, Day Three
Week four of rehearsals and there’s a different pace to proceedings – it’s more focused, concentrated. Nearly all the cast are present to work on the larger scenes towards the end of the play. Michael asks them if they need a warm-up before commencing the Battle of Agincourt, but most of them have already done their own individual ones.
They run the scene, following which Michael works briefly with Ron Cook (Pistol), Jason Baughan, playing the French Captain, and Ashley (Boy), on Scene Twenty-Three – a short scene in which Pistol extorts money from the French Captain in return for his life. ‘Don’t let your fear plateau out,’ Michael warns Jason. He gives a general note about the energy needed to find each new line, such as Pistol’s calling to the Boy – ‘Come hither boy.’
Meanwhile, the other actors wait on the edges of the space, quietly discussing other scenes or running lines. Moving on to Scene Twenty-Six, and accompanying ones set during the battle, Michael comments that they need to present the ‘general mess of warfare’. He encourages all of the cast to invest in the scenes, asking for ‘more reaction and indeed a vocalisation’ in response to Henry’s line, ‘The French have reinforc’d their scatter’d men’. Michael acknowledges that other elements, such as sound and music, will help create the atmosphere necessary: ‘I’m hoping this is the last time we do this without any support for you in the room.’ He’s pleased with what they’ve achieved – ‘Very, very good. Helpful, all of it.’
To support the transition between scenes, Michael, Michael Ashcroft and the cast have created a series of ‘wipes’ – movements across the stage to mark the different stages of the battle and the passage of time. He considers the context of one of the wipes – that Henry’s army aren’t as energised as before, the king warning them that they’re not finished yet. ‘Are you all clear, individually, what your intentions are?’ Michael asks the cast. ‘Your journey out of that scene into the next one – knowing physically and vocally where you are? It’s the wipe we’ve worked on least. There’s a hangover of a hiatus – having to start the battle noise on stage, whereas all the previous ones start off and come on. Have we even given this wipe a name?’
After another skirmish, Henry and his soldiers are exhausted, trying to catch their breath. Michael is mindful the actors achieve the right effect, in terms of their breathing: ‘Be careful that the punching out of the vocal isn’t comic.’ He considers the aftermath of the fighting – ‘Make sure the debris of it is quite full.’ Michael suggests Henry’s army progresses ‘from supreme tension to something simply tense, but not relaxing completely’.
He pauses to reflect on the historical records of the events depicted in the play, in particular the fighting: ‘Just think of all the people who took part in such extraordinary events who couldn’t write. You long for an account by one of the soldiers who survived that battle.’
Michael’s keen to re-cap: ‘Let’s just look at the first part of that scene before we go on.’ Afterwards, he focuses on the moment where Montjoy reveals that Henry and his army have won: ‘I had a whole heap of mini-concerns about who should sink to their knees first. I suppose that doesn’t really matter, but the getting up is a different thing – who’s leading who?’ Michael agrees with Jude that an exchange between Henry and Fluellen shouldn’t be diminished by the king rising too soon – ‘Tell us that story,’ says Michael. He also highlights the significance of the moment: ‘We, the audience, realise we’ve just witnessed the victory of the Battle of Agincourt – it’s just landed upon us.’
He then turns his attention to the exchange between Fluellen and Williams, which is the conclusion of an earlier quarrel between the latter and a disguised Henry, involving the swapping of gauntlets as a token of hostility – one of which Fluellen places in his hat-band. ‘What did our author intend here?’ ponders Michael. ‘He must have intended some humour.’ In summoning Williams, Michael requests that Jude ‘help us understand a little bit that that’s an aside, “Call yonder fellow hither”’.’ Jude then asks: ‘How public do I make the pardoning of Williams?’ Michael suggests he ‘bring Exeter in’ to support this moment.
There follows a marked change of topic with Westmoreland’s entrance, the list of the dead in his hand. Michael highlights the challenge of getting from one moment to the next, while continuing to ensure the storytelling’s clear from an audience’s point of view: ‘There’s a blocking issue there – I don’t see Exeter receive the list.’ He focuses on the final exchange between Henry and Fluellen. ‘There’s a shift tonally with what Fluellen says – “Is it not lawful, and please your majesty, to tell how many is killed?” ‘ Michael focuses on the end of the scene, asking Jude: ‘Are you sure that’s not a movement there? Keep on driving that through.’
After a quick tea break, the cast run everything they’ve done so far today, following which Michael gives brief general notes: ‘There are a few things there that we need to be careful of dropping… Help us.’
They then go back to the start of Scene Twenty-Nine, in which a victorious Henry negotiates the terms of the peace treaty with the defeated French king. Michael reflects on the opening of the scene, talking to Richard: ‘I think at the beginning don’t pull it into being a domestic scene.’ He comments on the challenges presented by it: ‘A potential problem of this scene is its static nature, in particular the Archbishop’s speech.’ Michael asks the cast to respond to what Canterbury says: ‘Help the audience during his speech, making sure grace notes cross the face. Help us with anything you have a view on.’ He considers the tone of the scene with regard to the terms of the treaty imposed by Henry: ‘England could have played this moment in a different way. You’ve chosen a humanitarian, diplomatic route instead.’
He then focuses on the ‘wooing scene’ between Henry and Katherine, which is at the heart of Scene Twenty-Nine. ‘Tonally, it’s hard,’ observes Michael. ‘It’s difficult to know the tone of this scene – the joy is shared with a large group of people.’ Watching a run through, Michael discusses Henry’s focus in the scene with Jude: ‘You were playing more with us than with her. There’s nothing that he does that’s for us only.’ He reflects on the playfulness of the exchange: ‘There’s something about us enjoying those moments when you’re trying to talk to her.’ Jude comments on Katherine’s intention, a sense of her saying to Henry: ‘Dance for me, little dog!’ Michael observes of the king: ‘This scene is about you being all over the shop.’ Jude’s keen to explore the playfulness between Henry and Katherine and Michael encourages both to ‘make sure it’s fun – more teasing’.
He discusses the subtlety of the scene with Jessie Buckley (Katherine). ‘The horror with which you recoil from the inappropriateness of being kissed shouldn’t be too big. It’s all by degree.’ Equally, he comments: ‘If the wind breathes in the wrong direction we can misunderstand her.’ Michael listens attentively throughout rehearsals, picking up on momentary lapses in concentration: ‘Was it me who slightly switched off while listening, or did it reach one level for you?’
They then go back again and run the battle scene, up to Scene Twenty-Nine. ‘I want to make sure we run that sequence of events,’ says Michael. Afterwards, he comments on the action feeling more connected: ‘You, the actors, were more relaxed, which made it easier for the characters.’