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Playreading Report: Henry IVth Part 1, Edinburgh, 10th December, 2017

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We ran a playreading of Henry IV Part 1 on Sunday, 10th December ’17, here in Edinburgh. Seven of us gathered to read the play. Two players had cancelled in the week prior to the reading. Luckily, we have castings from 5 to 12 players so the cancellations didn’t cause any difficulties – it just meant we each had more lines to read, and more characters to play..

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We drew lots for parts as usual, and I drew Hotspur – the largest part in the play. I started fairly hot, but I was sitting in the most comfortable chair, and slowly the energy sapped! In fact the reading became a little heavy all round. The language is beautiful, but there’s lots of long speeches. Part of the subject matter is also rather difficult. The glory of battle doesn’t seem quite so attractive to our modern age – at least in Edinburgh.

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I know Henry IV Part 1  (and the rest of the Henriad) quite well. I was obsessed with Falstaff for quite some time, particularly with Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (see my review at: Review: Chimes of Midnight). In fact I became so interested that I adapted Chiimes at Midnight for the stage, called it Gentlemen of the Shade  and staged a production of it at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 with seven players. The script of Gentlemen of the Shade is available free on this web-site (see and download a copy of the script at:  Gentlemen of the Shade).

I love the powerful, heavy language and can’t resist giving you some examples from A1S3:

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“Our house, my Sovereign Liege, little deserves
The scourge of greatness to be used on it,
And that same greatness too, which our own hands
Have helped to make so portly.”

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“Shall our Coffers then,
Be emptied to redeem a Traitor home?
Shall we buy Treason and indent with Fears,
When they have lost and forfeited themselves?”

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“By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright Honour from the pale-faced Moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where Fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned Honour by the Locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence, might wear,
Without Co-rival, all her Dignities.”

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Powerful stuff – as heavy and rich as Christmas pudding – most of the play-readers found it difficult – and the plot of the conflict of the Percys against Bolingbroke stays at this level, interwoven pretty well scene by scene, as one o f our play-readers said, with the comic plot – another rebellion – of Prince Hal’s fun with Falstaff in the taverns of Eastcheap.

 

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This play-reading report is rather late because the reading stimulated some new thoughts about the play, and its relevance to modern times and I struggled to write them down clearly. I’ve laboured and brought forth fruit. You can find them at: Heroes and Politicians in Henry IV Part 1.

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There are three scenes that I find quite difficult in Henry IV Part 1.

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A2S1 where the Carriers prepare for their trip to London
The start of A2S4 where Prince Hal and Poins tease Francis, the drawer
A3S1 where England is divided up between Glendower, Mortimer, and Hotspur and the lady speaks and sings in Welsh.

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All three of these scenes have been cut from  Gentlemen of the Shade, mostly because I disliked them or didn’t see their point.

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The play-reading helped me see the light about Act 3 Scene 1, and discussions with my partner after the play-reading deepened that understanding.

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My partner, who also read at the play-reading, thought that the play explores pretty much all of English society – both geographically, and by social class. With this view, A2S1 and the start of A2S4 paints a view of English life as carriers and drawers – the workers of the scoiety. A3S1 explores the Celtic fringe of England, and the archaic, pre-Christian religion of Wales – and parts of England -with Glendower’s talk of Dragons and how the Earth moved at his birth:

at my Birth
The front of Heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The Goats ran from the Mountains, and the Herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.

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To these ideas, my own obsession with the shift in culture from medieval culture to early modern English, were explored in Heroes and Politicians in Henry IV Part 1..

 

 

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What strikes me as interesting about this, is that these thoughts arose from a play-reading. I went into it thinking that it would be good fun to play the play again, but I wasn’t expecting any new thoughts. I don’t feel it is likely that these thoughts would arise from viewing a production (there’s too much going on to do much thinking), or from acting in a production (unless you were playing Hotspur) – the focus is on the character you’re playing. So what is it about a play-reading that lets these thoughts arise?:

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Because we cast randomly, everyone’s focus is more on the story(ies) of the play, rather than the characters – there’s no time to prepare a character.

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When one isn’t speaking. one is listening and reading. One has the script in hand as someone else plays there part. There are some who think it’s better to play the scene in ‘Parts and Cues’ mode as that makes you listen more attentively. I guess both ways can work. Perhaps the key thing is that one listens to the text in a more meditative frame of mind, than when watching or performing in a production.

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It’s not just me that has these reactions. My partner was stimulated by the play-reading as you’ll see in her thoughts above, and we have a new player who has been at three play-readings. He told me that for the first play-reading, he just came along and read. By the third, he was reading the complete text before coming to the play-reading, and found the whole experience very enriching – his understanding of the play has been deepened considerably, he thought.

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There’s something in this play-reading thing. Maybe you should give it a try?

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Let’s playread!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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If you are using, or thinking of using, Players-Shakespeare.com’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays for production rehearsals or play-reading, why don’t you ask to become a member of our Support for Playreading & Productions Closed FB group?

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If you want to know how our Shakespeare edition is developing,  ‘like’ our Facebook page, and you’ll get more detailed updates on Facebook on what’s happening.

 

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