First Encounters The Famous Victories of Henry V: Unknowing the Story

Learning Lines #5

The Famous Victories of Henry V production photos_2015_Photo by Richard Lakos _c_ RSC_163611
Martin Bassindale as Prince Hal
Photo by Richard Lakos © RSC Browse and license our images

First Encounters with Shakespeare: The Famous Victories of Henry V is a touring production tailored to young people from 8 years upwards. It brings together all the exciting moments from the three plays Henry IV Parts I & II and Henry V.

Two weeks down. Sixteen shows completed. We've played to hundreds of schoolchildren, teachers, parents, a postman and a 98-year-old man.

The preparation part is crucial. Each school is completely different. They have different layouts, different acoustics and will be filled with different children.

I've learnt that you cannot expect audiences to react in similar ways. The only thing you can be certain of is the story. The story is something you have, and the reactions are something you find.

Some schools will find certain parts hilarious whereas others will laugh at seemingly obscure lines. It's been an interesting challenge to become flexible and sensitive enough to be able to read each audience.

There have been two big lessons: 

• You have to hold onto the story tightly or you're in trouble 
• You have to 'unknow' the story every day

Our audiences don't know the story, whereas we know it far too well. Our familiarity with it tricks us into forgetting that for them it might as well be brand new writing.

Knowledge, familiarity and skill often get in the way of making something accessible, understandable and most importantly engaging.

The outcome of the battle of Agincourt must be as unpredictable and unknown for us as for the audience. Equally, it is vital to un-know that Hotspur is defeated by Hal in order for the audience to engage with the level of threat and danger required.

Unknowing the story has become a daily exercise.

Maybe the third big lesson is that this takes huge amounts of energy, discipline and emotional investment; and after two weeks I'm ready for a rest.

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