The cast and creative team of Henry IV visited the Museum of London last week for an interactive research trip. They were met by senior curators from the museum who took the company through a whistle-stop-tour of medieval London.
The visit was part of the rigorous rehearsal process that the company began at the start of 2014 in preparation for our Summer 2014 productions of Henry IV, Parts I and II.
The museum's Head of Archaeological Collections and Archive, Roy Stephenson, painted a picture of the London that Henry IV lived in, and the city that Shakespeare knew.
It was an informal, interactive visit that provoked debate and lots of questions from the company. There was discussion about the characters, the size of drinking vessels, what Falstaff's favourite drink sack actually is (fortified wine or sherry), life on the late medieval battlefields and what London was really like both in Henry IV and Shakespeare's day. Museum staff were able to offer lots of insight.
A trip to Eastcheap
The company were introduced to Eastcheap – where Shakespeare sets the notorious activities of Mistress Quickly, Falstaff and the young Hal in the Boar's Head Tavern. The museum's curators showed an enlarged version of the 'copperplate map'. This is the earliest known map of London (it dates from around 1559) and the surviving plates shows a slice of the city from Shoreditch to London Bridge.
They were shown objects from the museum's collection that revealed what the Boar's Head Tavern might have been like in Shakespeare's imagination. The company looked at medieval daggers - which provoked strong reaction from Antony Byrne and Nia Gwynne, the actors playing Pistol and Doll Tearsheet.
They examined flesh hooks and kitchen cauldrons, and were able to see clay pipes, dice, ceramic money pots, ladles, leather bombards (jugs), purses, pockets, stoneware cups and Venetian glasses.
War, plague and fire
In the war, plague and fire galleries, Senior Curator Hazel Forsyth explained to the company that the London that Henry IV was a part of – a late medieval city recovering from the ravages of the Black Death – was also a city where trade was beginning to flourish and where Londoners were wealthier than they had ever been before.
Hazel used objects in the collection to help explain the relationship between City and Crown, and the creation of mercantile guilds and companies. She also described how the Lancastrian kings, including Henry IV, rewarded their chief supporters for their loyalty in silver and gold collars – and the company were able to see these for themselves, up-close.
The company saw how important faith and religion was to Londoners during the reign of Henry IV. They were able to examine objects of personal devotion in the gallery, including prayer beads from the 1400s and pilgrim badges depicting St Thomas Becket dating from the late 1300s.
London's medieval theatre boom
They learned about Shakespearean London in these galleries. During Shakespeare's time there was a booming theatre business in the city.
The company saw a model of the 16th century Bankside playhouse, the Rose Theatre, and finds discovered as part of its excavation in the 1980s by Museum of London archaeologists.
Medieval and theatrical fashion show
In the costume store, Senior Curators, Beatrice Behlen and Jackie Keily showed them clothes dating from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. And talked them through illustrations and leather objects from the museum's archaeological collections.
They also saw stage armour and a tunic worn by the actor Charles Kean who played Hotspur in 1851 and a wig and moustache worn by George Robey, who played Falstaff in 1935.
News from the Henry IV rehearsal room
You can find out more about the rehearsal process for Henry IV Parts I and II in the Whispers from the wings blog – where Martin Bassindale who plays Peto has just started posting behind the scenes blog posts from the rehearsal rooms. Read Martin's first blog post here.
Top image: Actor Leigh Quinn examines a pot. Photo by John Chase.
Middle image: the company examine objects that would have featured in the Boar's Head of Shakespeare's imagination. Photo by John Chase.
Bottom image: the company are shown the remains of a shoe found in the excavations of the Rose Theatre thought to date from 1601. Photo by John Chase.