Pathways to Shakespeare

Jasper Britton

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 Britoon as Henry IV in Henry IV Part IJasper 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.

Jasper Britton and Alex Hassle in Henry IV Part II

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  |  5 comments

Previous in Pathways to Shakespeare
« Paul Jesson

Next in Pathways to Shakespeare
Oliver Ford Davies »


Jun 20, 8:19pm
Dave crossfield

I saw Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and I have also seen Jasper in Taming of the Shrew. He is an incredibly powerful and mesmerising actor and I am now one of his disciples.

Aug 10, 6:51pm
Gayle Gibson

Jasper Britton is the first actor who has made me weep for Henry IV. I believed he'd been the warrior hero of his age, i believed he was the King - i believed his sorrow and his guilt and his fears. A brilliant performance; the best Henry IV i've seen.

Oct 27, 11:06pm
Keith Godfrey

I've been following jasper for at least 8 years

his talent is extraordinary, and he's a nice bloke too

Aug 13, 7:33pm
Pam Johnson

Have just seen Jasper Britton in The Jew of Malta - mesmerising! What a powerful presence he had on stage. Sorry now that I missed Henry !V - will see if I can get it on DVD - I am now a fan!

Aug 25, 11:57pm
Joyce Taylor

Living in Stratford upon Avon, I feel very lucky to see a good many performances at our theatres. Watching Jew of Malta was mesmorising and Jasper Britton was superb. I thoroughly enjoyed Henry IV too

Post a Comment

Email address is optional and won't be published.
We ask just in case we need to contact you.

We reserve the right not to publish your comments, and please note that any contribution you make is subject to our website terms of use.

Email newsletter

Sign up to email updates for the latest RSC news:

RSC Members

Already an RSC Member or Supporter? Sign in here.

Teaching Shakespeare