When I was a teenager (more moons ago than I’m now willing to admit) I finagled myself some work experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company during their annual season in Newcastle. One of the things I learned from it (along with some scurrilous stories from the girls in Wigs) was that Stage Managers are the unsung heroes of theatre. They’re the ones who keep everything going.
This was proved to me again by yesterday afternoon’s trip to the Barbican. After the first scene, doors at the back of the stage slide back. Now because I saw this production in Canterbury during its national tour, I know that at this point, the platform bearing the bed from which Prince Hal will make his first appearance (disporting himself with not one, but two ladies of night) should trundle forward across the stage towards us. Except, on this occasion, it didn’t. There was a pause. The pause stretched. The bed did not move. Then, a small figure, dressed in black and wearing a headset (the stage manager) made what must have been a very lonely walk onto the stage. She told us that there was a problem, and there would be a small pause while they tried to fix it.
So we waited. Just before they closed the screens off in front of the bed, a little hand could be seen, waving forlornly – although whether that was meant for us, I’m not sure. I remembered, from my work experience, a (Geordie) stagehand commenting on a similarly recalcitrant piece of scenery, “Wey man, it’s always getting stuck. I just give it a kick, that usually sorts it out.”
Evidently, in this case, something more than that traditional remedy was required. Our stage manager joined us again, to say that the problem was worse than they’d thought and they would be suspending the performance for half an hour whilst they tried to sort it out. Outside the auditorium, Barbican staff gathered in little knots, anxiously clutching walkie-talkies. Back inside, loud bangs could be heard coming from behind the screen, suggesting that things had got bad enough for that other traditional remedy of ‘hit it with a hammer’ to be employed. By this point, the actors were probably hoping that the whole thing could be abandoned and they could go down the pub.
But, after a pause of rather longer than half an hour, our stage manager appeared again, to tell us that the problem could not be fixed (you could feel the audience tense up at this point) but, in the theatrical tradition of ‘the show must go on’ they’d found a way round it- they were going back to first principles and things would just be carried on and off instead. So, the bed is carried on, the actors sneak on under cover of the blackout, and we’re off again.
A pause of this length is always going to be a problem, for actors and audience. How to deal with it? Well, in this case, Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, after dismissing his pair of doxies, stands up (clad in nothing but a pair of white boxer shorts) stretches and says, “Sorry about the delay. I had a (wicked pause) technical problem.” We all laugh, and start to relax and enjoy the play.
So. Back to Alex Hassell in his knickers. Enough lasciviousness has already been expended on the internet over his abs, so I’ll pass over that, except to say, yes, they are very nice, but he seems to be getting thinner, so could someone please force feed him some cake?
Abs aside, his performance as Prince Hal is lovely- you genuinely believe his transition from boyish larking around to responsibility. My favourite moment is when news is delivered to the tavern that rebellion is brewing and that the moment to ‘pay the debt I never promised’ has arrived, rather sooner than he expected. You can see the dawning horror of having to face up to responsibility spread through his whole body, as he frantically runs his hands through his hair as if he’s trying to rub the news out. I’m not exactly the first to this particular party, but I do hope he gets to do Henry V soon, preferably for the RSC.
As his opposite number, so to speak, Trevor White does a brilliant job as a manic, energetic Hotspur, who fully lives up to his nickname. He’s a bleached-blond ball of pure energy, borderline-autistic in his rudeness to his ally Glendower. The climactic fight between him and Prince Hal is thrilling- it’s good to see it on a big stage like that of the Barbican, where it can really breathe.
I haven’t mentioned Falstaff yet, have I? Well Anthony Sher is fantastic. You probably could have worked that out for yourselves, couldn’t you? His Falstaff feels subtle, believable; not just the caricatured fat knight but a believable person- an irascible boozer with shaking hands. But there are some great comedic moments as well- such as Falstaff lying on his back, kicking his legs as he struggles to get up, like an upturned beetle.
This being the RSC, there are no weak links in the cast, but I especially like Sam Marks as Poins and Jennifer Kirby as Lady Percy. Since I’m already playing fantasy casting with Alex Hassell, can I suggest these two as Romeo and Juliet? They’re obviously talented performers of Shakespeare, and they’ve both suitably youthful- I’ve seen too many geriatric stage Romeos in particular.
Even having seen the production before with fully working set, the work around version didn’t seen jarring- and certainly didn’t detract from the audience’s enjoyment. The play eventually finished around an hour late – slightly irritating for the audience, but worse for the actors, who lost a third of the break they have between shows. I hope the evening performance all went smoothly.
PS- My train home was delayed, due to a technical problem. Wasn’t my day for technology, was it?