In the two parts of Henry IV, Shakespeare portrays a wayward prince led astray by a disreputable father-figure. Timothy and Samuel
West -— who star in a new
production — tell Andrew Burnet how they kept it in the family.
Hang around with actors. and you'll soon hear the gripes. Unfair casting. lousy scripts. uncouth directors; worst of all. unemployment. That's what Samuel West grew up with. The son of two leading actors. 'l'imothy West and Prunella Scales. he had no illusions: even at their level there wasn't tnuch opportunity to pick and choose work. ‘They gave me a cynicism for it.‘ he admits. ‘which is useful.‘
But at Oxford University. the poor lad‘s blood turned thespic. It was no use: the man was bom to act. llaving scaled the treacherous foothills of the acting profession. he‘s reaching giddy heights of his own. Now he‘s tackling a role which centres on birthright and its drawbacks: Prince Hal in Henry IV l’arrs One and Tim; at young man wallowing in debauchery. who must shrug off adolescence to
become heroic Henry V.
The prince and the porker: Timothy and Samuel West as
‘I think that Henry V is seen as a better king than Henry IV partly because of the way he is when he's young.‘ says West. ‘At one point he says. “When I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap." and in Henry V we see him doing exactly that. He saw them down the pub ten years ago; now when he calls on them to go to France. they're willing to die for him.‘
('hief architect of Hal‘s wild years is Falstaff. a bacchinalian rogue who charmed audiences so much that (uniquely) Shakespeare wrote a sequel for him. The Merry Wives ()f ll'imlsur. Taking his second stab at the role. Timothy West has an idea what makes Falstaff so popular. ‘lle is a corrupting influence. and he does a lot of may unpleasant things.‘ he says. ‘so
Falstaff and llal
it’s really the fascination of watching somebody who is totally immoral and self-interested getting away with things and making you laugh at it. We all know people like that and there's a son of fascination about them. isn't there? Even people who are conned by very good con artists rather enjoy the experience.‘
The Wests were hired independently. but the casting of father and son must add resonance to Falstaff 's surrogate patemity. Though he says a family relationship can‘t be relied upon to supply ‘something over and above what’s there in the text’. West Snr admits that it can help at times. ‘As-ifs always help.‘ he says. ‘I think when it comes to the rejection. l‘m conscious of the fact that one’s son in the end has got to reject one. biologically. and the feeling is there. somewhere in the back of my mind.‘
Hal's rejection of the lowlife ringleader on becoming king can seem heartless. but it is the culmination ofthe plays‘ central tension: will Hal reform or not? ‘My problem is not playing the end too quickly.‘ explains Samuel West. referring to a soliloquy in Part One. Act One. where the prince reassures the audience of his inner wisdom. ‘l want it to be a sort of putting-off the moment because he‘s enjoying himselftoo much. It's a bit boring for the audience. if he turns to them and says. "l‘m just playing at all this". Whereas ifhe says, “I'm going to do this. but not yet.“ then the audience think. well. I suppose you might. but you might not.
‘So the rejection must be difﬁcult; it can't be flip. but Hal has to make Falstaff see that it is necessary. By theend. we realise that Falstaff would make a very bad king; and that Hal. in order to become a good one. tnust get rid of him. however much ofa wrench it is.‘
ironic. isn't it. how these frank admissions can help keep a fatnin together?
Henry IV Parts One and Two. English Touring Theatre. Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Man 9—Sat [4 Dee. See listings/or (Ietai/s afrlouble-bills and 'marat/mns '.
Making arrangements to interview Tim Supple, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production to tour in Scotland, is a bit of a comedy of errors in itself. At noon he’s busy in discussions at london’s Old Vic - where he’s Artistic Director - and can’t be disturbed, while later, at the next hastin arranged slot, it’s apparent that he’s wandered off from under the nose of his publicist, much to her embarrassment. lle finally calls at 11.30pm.
‘Sorry I fucked up earlier,’ he says disanningly, his voice sounding hoarse at this late hour, ‘l’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment . . .’
So too does the company presenting
Pain behind the laughter: Robert Bowman and Sarah c. Cameron to The Comedy 0f Errors
his Comedy 0! Errors. Because this tour, far from going to established theatres, instead makes for leisure and sport centres, which means it has to transport its own stage, in three rather large trucks. It sounds like a logistical nightmare - so why go to the extra trouble?
‘lt’s a tradition that grew up out of people like lan Mcltellen at the nsc: he explains. ‘The purpose is to go to venues which are available to communities that are further away from the main metropolitan centres, to get closer to people who wouldn’t normally go to see a play. In any case, it’s good for everyone who works in the theatre to take their theatre outside of the normal locations. Theatres have their own habits and patterns which are often dull, so it’s good to go into another situation.’
It seems as if Supple’s production is similarly unconventional. One of Shakespeare’s earliest efforts, the play centres on two pairs of identical
twins, and is often played as straight farce. Supple however, has uncovered a different, more poignant element to the play, gathering a sheaf of glowing reviews.
‘Plays can acquire their own identity born out of past productions, which can act as a kind of coffin,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘Besides, the word “comedy” in Shakespeare’s time didn’t mean something that was necessarily going to make you laugh. So I really question how much of a farce this play is meant to be. Of course it’s funny in places, but probably no more so than King lear. The point is that there’s nothing funny in the play that doesn’t come from some kind of pain. Really it’s about that: the pain of life - particularly city life - and what it means to live as part of a family and of society.’ (Marc lambert)
The Comedy or Errors, Royal Shakespeare Company, University of Stirling Sports Centre, Tue 3-Saf 7 Dec.
The List 29 Nov-l2 Dec l996 55