Behind the scenes with the Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company creates theatre at its best, made in Stratford-upon-Avon, and shared around the world.

Welcome to the RSC
Come behind the scenes of our tour of four major productions in Stratford-upon-Avon, London, China and New York.
King & Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings
In 2016 we present a major theatrical event to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. We have brought together Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V, presenting them in a four play cycle, with generous support from our Global Tour Premier Partner, J.P. Morgan.

The plays, directed by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran, focus on the monarchs who reigned over England between 1377 and 1422. Follow the cast and crew through their preparations and rehearsals for performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and on the international tour.

Section 1: Rehearsing the plays
While the set, props and costumes are being made and the word about the show is spreading, the actors are busy in the rehearsal room. 

We are fortunate enough to be able to spend six weeks rehearsing a production working alongside the director, voice coach, fight director, musical director and stage management team.

The stage managers constantly monitor rehearsals because decisions in the rehearsal room directly affect the production process. Do we need an extra cushion on the sofa? Which way should a door open? How fast should a scene change? The stage managers record these continuous developments and pass notes to the relevant workshop. They keep a detailed script ('the book' or the 'show bible') with markings of entrances, exits, scene changes and actors' positions that are crucial for the running of the show once it gets on stage.

Background research and visits from expert speakers help to set the context for rehearsals. The cast visited Westminster Abbey to look at the tombs of the kings and nobles they would be portraying, and to get behind the history books to sense the people who really lived.

Henry V is buried in a secret chapel (pictured) which is rarely open to the public. Richard II and Henry V and their wives are buried in the Abbey. Henry IV had a particular respect for Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170, and so chose to be buried at Canterbury Cathedral.

Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeological Collections and Archive at the Museum of London, shares details of pottery items from the 16th and 17th centuries with the cast and crew.

Sections of the set are often built in the rehearsal room so actors can get a feel for it before they reach the stage. Their first rehearsal on the stage is only four days before the first public performance.

Rehearsal props and costume help actors to build them into their performance from the start. 

When the actors perform in full costume on stage for the first time, it will already feel somewhat familiar to them.

The technical rehearsal in the theatre is when all the special effects are finalised, such as lighting, sound, and set changes.

This is when precise decisions are made about when each effect will take place. These timings become the 'cues' which will be given over the radio by the Deputy Stage Manager to everyone involved in the performance.

The final run of the show is the dress rehearsal, in which every element of the production is practised together, before the first performance in front of an audience.

Section 2: Opening the house
Once the Stage Manager is happy that all preshow checks on effects, props and scenery have been made, they hand the house (the auditorium) to the Front of House Manager, whose team begin to admit the audience into their seats. In this section, you can see photos taken behind the scenes of some of our past shows.

The audience awaiting the start of the evening’s entertainment and taking the opportunity to read up on what they are about to watch.

Backstage, the Deputy Stage Manager (DSM) can be heard making calls (announcements) via a speaker. The first call for the company is known as the 'Half', 35 minutes before curtain up.

At this point, all the cast must have signed in at Stage Door, and be preparing for the performance. Those who appear in the first scene of the play will be called to the stage as 'Beginners', five minutes before the performance starts.

The moment of anticipation just before curtain up. In an auditorium such as ours, with a thrust stage where the audience surrounds the actors on three sides, there is no curtain. The start of the show is referred to colloquially as ‘going up’, and instead of raising the curtain, the DSM announces ‘Lights Up on Part One’ for those back of house, as the action gets underway onstage.

A member of the backstage team, wearing an earpiece, watches from the wings ready to assist with a scene change.

Dressers help actors to change costume during shows. Sometimes with only seconds to effect a complex outfit change, several dressers can work on different elements simultaneously. If an actor is required to change quickly from one costume to another, intricate fastenings are replaced with Velcro, poppers or magnets to speed up the process.

Section 3: Storytelling on stage
Years of a character's life can be seen on stage during an evening's performance.

At the start of Richard II, the king feels invincible and is confident of his birth right. He is immaculately dressed, rich costume symbolizing his power and authority. During the course of the play, he makes mistakes which bring about his downfall. He loses the support of the nobility, and makes some powerful enemies.

At the beginning of the play, Richard banishes his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, from England for six years. When John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father dies, Richard seizes all his land and money. This sets Bolingbroke on a path to return to England and depose Richard. He amasses a great army, and supported by much of the nobility, he succeeds in deposing Richard, and is crowned Henry IV.

Henry V’s journey begins in the play Henry IV Part I, set during the reign of his father Henry IV. As the Prince of Wales, or Prince Hal, as he is known, he enjoys a relaxed lifestyle and spends his time carousing with Sir John Falstaff in taverns, treating life as a chance to have fun and thinking little about the responsibilities that lie ahead.

The story of Henry IV Part I

In the film, you can see one of the scenes set in the tavern, featuring Prince Hal and Falstaff.

On more than one occasion Hal vows to change his ways:

“Yet herein will I imitate the Sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother-up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.”
Henry IV Part I, Act I, Scene 2

Harry Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, nicknamed Hotspur, and Prince Hal battle over their right to the throne. Henry IV feels that Harry Percy is a more worthy heir than his own son, because of his brave, chivalrous nature in contrast to Hal’s dissolute lifestyle.

In Henry IV Part II, Prince Hal loses his father and the crown of England is conferred upon him. At the end of the play, the newly created Henry V immediately rejects his past life, including his tavern friendship with Falstaff.

The story of Henry IV Part II

Soon after his coronation and at the start of the final play, Henry V embarks on a conquest of France as part of the Hundred Years War.

At the beginning of the play the character of Chorus asks the audience to help the actors create the epic scenes in the play by using their imagination:

"...can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million; 
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play."
Henry V, Prologue, Act I, Scene 2

In contrast to the bloody action of the battles, we share the French Princess Katherine's amusement as her nurse Alice teaches her some English words. The scene was written to be performed entirely in French.

The wooing of the French princess by Henry, at the end of the play, is a light touch that lends a sense of humanity to the battle worn king.

Section 4:  Looking back
Every director interprets and presents Shakespeare's work in a different way. 

In order to cement his victory over the French army, Henry wants to marry the French princess. Here Henry (Geoffrey Streatfeild) and Katherine (Alexia Healy) attempt to come to an understanding. This 2007 RSC production formed part of a two-year staging of the Histories Cycle

Richard Burton as Henry V with Hazel Penwarden as the princess, in a 1951 production. Anthony Quayle's influential production presented the play as part of the sequence of four historical plays, running from Richard II and continuing through Henry IV, Parts I and II, just as our current tour does.

Paul Scofield as Henry V with Princess Katherine played by Ruth Lodge. This 1946 version, performed at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (the predecessor to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre), was directed by Dorothy Green.

Henry (Ian Holm) with Katherine (Katherine Barker), in our 1964 production, directed by the founder of the RSC and its first Artistic Director Peter Hall, with Associate Director John Barton.

In our 2007 production of Henry V, the actors playing the French court performed on aerial equipment and trapezes throughout the show, so the rehearsal room required a specialist fit-up.

On the final set, the equipment was colour matched to the costumes and the set. In contrast to the plainly-dressed English soldiers who emerged from below the stage through trapdoors and using ladders, the French occupied the aerial space wearing elaborate brightly-coloured costumes.

Section 5: Sharing our work
All our productions begin life at our Stratford-upon-Avon workshops in the heart of England. We bring them to the widest possible audience through our touring, residencies, live broadcasts and online activity. So wherever you experience the RSC, you experience work made in Shakespeare's home town.

We are taking 'King & Country' to London’s Barbican Theatre, to the Shanghai Grand Theatre, Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts and the Hong Kong Arts Festival in China, and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

We regularly tour our shows to smaller regional theatres across the UK. We also produce abridged versions for young people and families which tour to schools, such as The Famous Victories of Henry V.

We broadcast most of our Shakespeare shows 'Live from Stratford-upon-Avon' to cinemas around the world and to UK schools. A mobile control room outside the theatre houses the editing and directing team who put the live broadcast together.

Inside the auditorium, rows of seats are removed in preparation for the cameras, and there is a sense of excitement whenever the boom camera swings over the top of the audience in the stalls, heading in for a close up on the action.

A class enjoys Henry IV Part II in their own classroom.

Not every school can make the journey to Stratford-upon-Avon and see his plays performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, so if you can't come to us, we can come to you. We know that one of the best ways to experience Shakespeare is to see it live.

Section 6: Casting the roles
We work as an ensemble, which means that most of the actors appear in several plays at the same time. On many occasions, they rehearse plays in the repertoire during the day and perform in different productions in the evening. They also understudy fellow performers throughout the run. 

For example, Leigh Quinn plays a prince in Henry IV Part 1...

A prostitute in the same play.

Thomas Wart in Henry IV Part II.

Alice, the French princess’s maid in Henry V.

And Princess Katherine in The Famous Victories of Henry V, our play for young people (as well as Poins and Prince John…).

Keith Osborn played a range of characters throughout the series, appearing here as the Archbishop of York.

He also portrays the Abbot of Westminster in Richard II.

And Montjoy, ambassador for the French Court, in Henry V.

Jim Hooper appears as the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard II.

As Silence in Henry IV Part II.

And as Erpingham in Henry V.

As well as performing in productions, our actors often appear at relevant events. On October 25th 2015, Westminster Abbey held a service commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

King & Country cast member Sam Marks, who understudies the part of Henry V, performed the famous speech in which Henry leads his army into the battle.

"This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3

2016 will be a special year for the RSC. Stratford-upon-Avon will be the focus of large scale celebrations of Shakespeare’s legacy, marking 400 years since his death. We hope you can join us here or on tour.

Credits: Story

The RSC website

The King & Country season is directed by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran

King & Country Creative Team
Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting Designed by Tim Mitchell
Music by Paul Englishby
Sound Designed by Martin Slavin
Movement by Michael Ashcroft
Fights by Terry King
Associate Director: Owen Horsley

King & Country Cast
Daniel Abbott, Martin Bassindale, Jasper Britton, Antony Byrne, Sean Chapman, Oliver Ford Davies, Nicholas Gerard-Martin, Robert Gilbert, Julian Glover, Alex Hassell, Jim Hooper, Emma King, Jennifer Kirby, Jane Lapotaire, Sam Marks, Dale Mathurin, Christopher Middleton, Evelyn Miller, Matthew Needham, Keith Osborn, Sarah Parks, Leigh Quinn, Joshua Richards, Antony Sher, David Tennant, Simon Thorp, Obioma Ugoala, Andrew Westfield, Simon Yadoo

King & Country is supported by
Arts Council England
J.P. Morgan

Henry V is supported by
Mark Pigott KBE

The RSC Acting Companies are generously supported by

With thanks to
Dean and Chapter of Westminster for use of Westminster Abbey images
Museum of London for use of cast visit image

All other images, video and audio content © RSC

RSC Photographers
Lucy Barriball, Sara Beaumont, Ellie Kurtz, Richard Lakos, Kwame Lestrade, Angus McBean, Keith Pattison, David Tett, Reg Wilson, David Woodings

Curator of the exhibition
Laura Keating, Events and Exhibitions Project Officer for the RSC

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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