The script of a play is often considered a blueprint for performance. While it can be read and enjoyed on its own, a script is brought to life on stage through the input of the creative team.
The choices made by theatre directors, actors and designers unlock potentially infinite different versions. For example, a production of Macbeth set in outer space, which had the witches as aliens, would play very differently from a production that attempted to recreate how Macbeth would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time using period costumes, an all-male cast and no artificial light. These different productions are based in different directorial interpretations of a play text, which, in turn, give the audience new insights into the play – particularly important if it’s a play that has been performed many times before.
In this session, we shall explore the impact of some of these different production choices on the meaning of a play.
Watch the video, in which an actor, stage manager, costume designer and theatre director talk about what they do. Have you taken on any of these roles in Drama or English lessons?
Making a piece of theatre depends upon collaboration, with people individually responsible for specific areas of the production and also working together. We’ll look at the impact of three of these areas below, using William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V as an example.
Henry V was first performed in 1599. It is a history play, meaning that Shakespeare drew on historical sources (as well as inventing quite a lot!) to the tell the story of king Henry V of England before and after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) with France. The play is the final part of a tetralogy (group of 4 plays), which depict the previous kings. The key themes of the play include what makes a good leader, war and nationhood.
There have been many different productions of Henry V over the years. You can explore an interactive timeline of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Henry V here – this theatre company alone has produced the play 9 times since 1964, 4 in the last 25 years! The play has been particularly attractive to directors because of its theme of nation – it allows them to interrogate what it means to be British, particularly in a post-Brexit world. However, modern audiences might be uncomfortable with the explicit appeals to patriotism, or some might say jingoism (extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive foreign policy). Can Henry be represented as a hero, even though some of his actions are violent or even cruel? This is one of the questions the director and actor must tackle when putting on production of Henry V.
One of the jobs of a theatre director is to read the play carefully and decide upon a concept for the production (an overarching interpretation of the play, which guides all the choices they make as a director). Watch this video of director Dominic Cooke talking about how he collaborated with the creative team to come up with a concept for his production of The Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre:
Even when they are working with the same play text, directors’ interpretations can vary a lot. You can compare how different directors have tackled specific moments in the play using this resource by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Read the ‘Things to Consider’ sections and look at the pictures of RSC productions. What are the differences between the interpretations? Using the RSC resource, note down the main things that a director should consider when approaching Henry V.
Part of the attraction in watching a piece of theatre is that it takes place in a particular moment in time. It is live and the actors can connect directly with the audience. Because of this, no two performances of play will ever be the same, even if it has the same actors and director. Yet even if you haven’t been able to see a theatre production, either in person or as a recording, you can still find out about the director’s choices through research. Some good places to look for this are any information about the show on the theatre’s website, production photographs, trailers on YouTube, interviews by members of the creative team and theatre reviews on newspaper websites. Bringing this information together helps you build up a picture of what the production was like.
We’ll focus on two recent productions of Henry V: Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2019, and Gregory Doran’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015. Both productions staged Henry V along with the other history plays as the climax of the tetralogy, showing Henry’s evolution from an irresponsible teenager who enjoys getting drunk to someone capable of leading troops into battle as king.
In the Globe production, Henry V was played by Sarah Amankwah, an example of gender-blind casting (she played the king as a person, not as a woman). The Globe production emphasised the ensemble cast and brought out the sense of fun in the play through music and dancing – surprising for a play about war!
Gregory Doran’s directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company emphasised the theme of war, timing the production to coincide with 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and the 100th anniversary of World War One. Doran said the play is ‘an extraordinary debate about war’ and so tried to show both sides of this debate his production. Alex Hassell as Henry V was very much the star, in contrast with the more equal focus of the Globe production.
Explore the resources listed under each title to find out more about each production. Two reviews are listed because it is always useful to compare critics’ opinions if you want to get a sense of what the production was really like. You can also find other resources through searching the production information on the internet.
Sarah Bedi and Federay Holmes’s 2019 production
- Rehearsal video: https://youtu.be/J4OII0mpW-E
- Trailer: https://youtu.be/JOD1c9VCVyU
- Show page: Henry V | Shakespeare’s Globe (shakespearesglobe.com)
- Review 1: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2/Henry V review – a game of thrones with lots of leather | Theatre | The Guardian
- Review 2: Review: Henry V (Shakespeare’s Globe) | WhatsOnStage
Gregory Doran’s 2015 production
- Director talking about the production: Gregory Doran on Henry V | Royal Shakespeare Company – YouTube
- Lead actor, Alex Hassell, talking about his character: Alex Hassell on Henry V | Henry V | Royal Shakespeare Company – YouTube
- Show page: Gregory Doran production | Henry V | Royal Shakespeare Company (rsc.org.uk)
- Review 1: Henry V review – robust and clear | Royal Shakespeare Company | The Guardian
- Review 2: Henry V, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, review: A production of huge flair and bite | The Independent | The Independent
Write notes about what you discover about each production. You might want to include sections on directorial concept; set design; casting. Which production would you prefer to watch and why?
Want to learn more?
Click here for Part 2 of Shakespeare in Performance to explore the contributions designers and actors make to a theatre production and to put your knowledge into practice by directing your own scene!
Dr Hannah Greenstreet completed her PhD in contemporary feminist theatre and realism at Jesus College, Oxford in 2021. She holds a Master of Studies in English: 1830-1914 from Oxford and a BA in English from the University of Cambridge. She has taught literature and drama at the University of Oxford, Pacific Lutheran University and CMRS-Middlebury College. She is also a theatre critic for Exeunt Magazine and a playwright. She is Project Support Officer for the SJC Inspire Programme.
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