Long bow lessons at the RSC
January 31, 2014
Today has been a good day. Let me break it down:
1. It's Friday – always promising for potential good days
2. I finished early – quicker to the pub to meet friends
3. I fired an English Long Bow – It was a bow and I fired it. Simple.
4. We performed our mini project of staging The Famous Victories of King Henry V in just one week. And it went really quite well.
Now let me explain.
Every evening you get an email about your next day's schedule. What scenes you are needed for, if you have any meetings to attend, starts time, finish times... pretty standard.
But when you see printed '10am – Long Bow Expert' you know the RSC is about to pull out another rabbit from the hat. Adrian – indeed an expert of the long bow – took us through the history of archery then let us have a go at firing arrows in our rehearsal room in Clapham.
A quick history of the long bow
Apparently the English Long Bow is actually the Welsh Long Bow thanks to archers from Wales who decimated an English army sometime in 600AD.
The English then cottoned on and recruited Welsh archers into their armies and stole the good idea for themselves.
Indeed in the middle ages a law was passed that ordered men to practice archery on every Sunday and for boys as young as seven to be taught the skill. The importance of good archers was similar to have a Gatling gun on your side.
From looking at skeletons we can tell that archers may have had deformed bodies. The huge muscular strength needed to fire arrow after arrow meant that their shoulders and backs were hugely developed.
I was thinking of Rafael Nadal at this point in the lecture. Or Katie Price's ex-boyfriend.
Volunteering for target practice
After some shooting practice, and general merriment, Adrian asked if one of us would like to hear the sound of an arrow. 'I thought they were silent,' we murmured.
'Hitting a target,' he answered.
This meant one of us sitting about a foot away from the target and listening as an arrow slammed into the target next to your head.
Naturally, I offered to give it a go.
'We're only in week four,' I thought, 'there's still time to re-cast, or change the understudies if I'm harmed.'
The stage management looked stunned. Greg was holding his head. The cast were holding their breath. I was beginning to regret taking up this Long Bow Expert's offer.
But I can happily say Adrian hit the target and buried the arrow into the hay. It would have probably passed clean through me. As for the sound of the arrow – I was too busy breathing deeply to notice much.
A quick history of the Henrys
At the beginning of the week a group of the company had been asked to put on a performance of The Famous Victories of Henry The Fifth - an anonymous work written before Shakespeare's histories, and one of the primary sources of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.
Indeed there is a story that the Queen's Men performed the play in Stratford-upon-Avon in the time of Shakespeare's childhood. Being the son of the town's bailiff a young William Shakespeare may well have seen it himself.
We had a week to learn our lines, decide where we were going to stand and remember to pick up the right props. It wasn't impossible to imagine a similar group of actors on the Southbank of the Thames about four hundred odd years ago grappling with a new play that some guy called William had just written.
Anyway it went down a treat and we all came out the other side as champions of improvising in iambic pentameter – or not quite.
It is so striking to see how much Shakespeare drew on his sources. Characters, scenes, structure, jokes, nuances have all been lifted from this earlier anonymous play. But what Shakespeare did after that is where the genius comes in...
Image: reproduced via a Creative Commons licence from Flickr user Hans
by Martin Bassindale
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