Timon of Athens twenty years ago-- the last time that I engaged with a Shakespeare play I hadn't done before-- the thirty or more Shakespeare productions I've been involved in have all been familiar territory to a greater or lesser degree. My perceptions and interpretations of each of those plays are set to some extent-- not set in stone, because I try to keep my mind open to fresh perspectives on the texts; but my mind is made up to a point on what a play is about, who the characters are, and how to make it all work in performance. It was a revelation, then, in the first few rehearsals of Henry, to hear lines spoken for the first time and to know that they were Shakespeare-- yet to have them fall on my ear fresh, with no "baggage" of remembered interpretations from ten or thirty years ago, and no preconceptions as to where the action of the play was taking us. It's difficult to describe the excitement that this generated in me. I was suddenly on the same footing with nearly everyone else in the cast (alone among the actors, I think, Anne Sandoe has done the play before, having appeared in the 1971 production here), and the feeling was strangely exhilarating. I didn't feel that I had a head start on the rest of the cast, as I so often do, and thus we all seem to be on the same voyage of discovery together.
We did another full runthrough of the show two days ago, and everyone is feeling more comfortable; there's momentum and "flow" starting to happen, and the scenes are beginning to have that feeling of give-and-take that promises to make them dramatically compelling. (This is a normal part of the process, as actors' concentration, which has been inward and focused on the words as they struggle to master their text, opens out to include their scene partners as they become more confident with the lines.) A curious thing happened in III, 2, the scene of Wolsey's great fall. It's actually a sequence of four or five mini-scenes, confrontations with different characters separated by a couple of soliloquies. With the confidence of being solid on the lines, I indulged myself in some exploration of alternative ways of playing the moments-- playing against the surface meaning of the lines in places, taking pauses to enrich the subtextual action, playing some moments with a sense of their theatricality instead of only focusing on what emotional truth I felt secure with-- and the results were interesting. Several actors approached me after the runthrough to express how moved and impressed they were with how the scene had been played. It's difficult to write about this without sounding conceited, and I really believe that what success I've enjoyed as an actor has been grounded in a transcendence of self, an immersion of the actor's ego into the task of playing the language and the character. But the feeling that arose from playing Wolsey's fall with the scope and audacity of what we think of as a "star turn" was-- for lack of a better word-- masterful, and made me think twice about the whole question of artistic modesty. Looking back on times that I've experienced this feeling before-- in playing Macbeth, Lear, Prospero-- I realize that I associate that freedom to cut loose and try anything with great roles like these-- roles for which you don't just use some part of your personality and cut off others (as is so often the actor's task) because they are so demanding, so comprehensive, that they demand everything that the actor has to give. You just bundle up everything that you have learned as an artist and a human being and throw it at the character, hoping that all you have to offer will be, even barely, sufficient to fill the outlines of so great a dramatic creation. And the perception that Wolsey may be such a character, if I have the courage to take it in both hands and run with it as far as I can go-- without worrying whether I may be taking it too far, without limiting myself to what feels safe-- is exciting and liberating.
Something I've been meaning to write about is a phenomenon that was particularly powerful in the first week or so, though it's losing some of its novelty now. Those who know me well will be aware that I've spent much of my professional life acting and directing Shakespeare; one of the results has been, after doing all of the plays and some five or six times over, that I know the canon almost too well. That is to say, ever since directing