June 20, 2014
Jasper Britton shares his journey as an actor that led him to play King Henry IV, in Gregory Doran's productions of Henry IV Part I & II.
Jasper is very clear about what he has learnt through Shakespearean performance and from whom he has learnt it. He wasn't really aware of Shakespeare before preparing for his O Levels, a time when he had a lively teacher who encouraged him to take on the lead role in Othello.
Having had enough of academic life, Jasper left school and worked as a courier around London for three years, and later went onto work in stage management for six. He made his first breakthrough during a phone call to Jonathan Miller, when he asked to be auditioned for King Lear.
He was cast as the King of France; a role that delivers the actor three chunks of verse, and Jasper adds that at this point, he didn't understand what verse was. Jonathan Miller talked of 'performative statements' and 'territory' but Jasper was not enlightened on how to play the lines. He found Eric Porter helpful, who reassured the young Jasper that he was 'so nearly there.'
Jasper's big break
Jasper's big moment came when Brian Cox directed him in Richard III at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, in 1995. Jasper reflects that he was young, had big lungs and that the production had speed and fluency. Brian Cox had covered all the walls of his house with the text but he knew when to cut. Jasper has learnt that sometimes with Shakespeare, less is more. Brian would tell him to be 'broad' by which he meant 'feed it, not off it', explaining that an actor in the main role can use everyone else's energy to glide through the play. This he has found useful.
He also worked with Trevor Nunn at The National Theatre in 1999, where he played Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. It was at a National Theatre workshop that he first encountered Giles Block; a quiet wise man, who unlocked the verse for him. At first he was somewhat cynical but he was blown away by the technique illustrated in this workshop and became a disciple and advocate of Giles' work.
Bunking off to find Caliban
Sometimes a fellow actor or director will open up paths for you, and sometimes it's your own creative spark in relation to Shakespeare that works. Jasper was playing Caliban at The Globe when the prospect of a particularly strenuous physical workshop led him to escape down to the coast, some ten miles from where they were rehearsing The Tempest.
There he discovered the wreck of a boat, in a muddy inlet. The Sea Wyf was the name inscribed on what remained of some rotten planks. Being keen on boats himself , he decided that he wanted to take it and with some difficulty he went through the messy business of releasing it and hauling it back to his car. He was in a muddy , dishevelled state but clasping his treasure - a shipwrecked artifact, beach treasure that Caliban liked to collect, he thought. He had found his Caliban and returned to base having indeed physicalised his character.
In 2003 he had great success playing Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Gregory Doran. Initially he had not been keen on the role but did want to work with 'Greg' and trusted his artistic judgment. Gregory met the reluctant Jasper for a chat and told him 'we are not doing The Taming of the Shrew, but a play called The Taming of the Shrew.' An enigma worth solving?
Gregory saw the play as a love story between two misfits and he was dispensing with the usual physical knockabout. As the character developed, Jasper came to see him as still in mourning for his father, yet committed to finding money to retain his property and land. He's afraid of commitment despite his bravado and is a man whose only passion so far has been hawking.
Gregory advised him to read T H White's book The Goshawk; a story of how to tame a feral creature and how to win its trust, a revelation for Jasper. A very successful production emerged that proved that the play didn't have to be a misogynist's dream. Jasper says that Gregory is a wise director who trusts the words of the play.
Playing the King
Now Jasper is back with Gregory, playing King Henry IV. He sees Henry as maintaining a guarded façade. He has found kingship an incredibly difficult job. Shakespeare gives an interesting psychological complexity to a character I certainly had taken for granted, he adds.
Like Macbeth he can feel insecurity of tenure and finds himself constantly on guard against plots. He is estranged from his son, Hal, bitterly disappointed in him until his façade crumbles in their final reconciliation. There is something more engaging in this presentation of Henry and his verse delivery is clear, expressive and spontaneous.
Image 1 caption: Jasper Britton as King Henry IV in Henry IV Part I
Image 2 caption: Jasper Britton as King Henry IV and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part II
by Viv Graver
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