This is Geoffrey’s first Henry V. Oliver had planned to get around to it, a few seasons after Prince Hal, but had wanted to take a break from directing histories. Geoffrey hadn’t argued with him, not minding especially whether they got to it this season or the next, certain that they would get there eventually. It’s one of the few – very few – of the canon where Oliver’s thoughts on the play are largely a mystery to him. Geoffrey doesn’t know why. Even those texts which Oliver had disliked (Cymbeline) or outright refused to direct (Two Gentlemen of Verona), Geoffrey knew why.
Oliver had not been a very collaborative director, at least while he was living. He had kept notebooks of his own thoughts about the plays and sometimes when they were alone he would read them to Geoffrey. But not Henry V. This one is a gap in their conversation.
Anna is reminding him, “They’re going to ask.”
“So I have been told,” Geoffrey replies.
“I’m just telling you that you need to be prepared for them to ask.”
“I am prepared, Anna. I am prepared to tell them that I chose to cast an excellent young actor who is an Indigenous Canadian, and that I believe it to be both upsetting and surprising that this is apparently the first time such a thing has happened.”
“Not the first time it’s happened,” she corrects. “Obviously not. But for the Théâtre-Marie residency, yes, first time there’s been an Indigenous actor in the lead Shakespearean role. They’re going to ask you about it.”
Geoffrey shakes his head. “Mitchell was the best actor for the part. I’m not making a statement about- there are actors of all ethnicities on both the English and French sides of the cast.” He pauses. “There is, I suspect, a version of the play where we make all the English side white, cast Mitch as the Dauphin, depict Henry as a coloniser, certainly such readings exist, but that is not the story we are telling with this cast. I have no especial desire to be the one depicting a white King Henry being gifted a native bride, that’s not- Perhaps, of course, our production will ask questions by its very existence. Henry asserts his historic, God-given rights to the land, which might play differently in our show, and that’s no bad thing, to make the audience think about it a little. But that comes from the text and the actors. It’s not my story to tell.”
“I know that. But they will ask.”
“We have employed cultural specialists, I have been in many discussions with Mitchell Cardinal about our vision for the production, and we are proud to represent – or at least try to represent – the wonderful diversity of this nation. We also hope to present a fearless and modern production of one of Shakespeare’s most morally complex plays.”
“Thank you.” Anna nods once, firmly.
She smiles at him. “He is very good.”
“Yes he is.”
“God, I hope people buy tickets,” she says.
Box office reports appear on both of their desks every Monday morning, and daily from the last week before a show opens. They are the most frequent cause of Anna burying her head in her hands and telling him that she needs ‘just a minute, Geoffrey.’ Geoffrey himself feels more buffeted by the forces of economics than he ever did during any of the ten years prior, either with New Burbage or the first iteration of Theatre Sans Argent. Geoffrey hadn’t spent much time imagining his future, but there had been a brief spell, late in his first stint at New Burbage, when he had pictured a life with Ellen, children, and a fulfilling acting career. It had not involved a one-bedroom rented apartment in Montreal and the continuing and very real fear that one poorly attended production might bankrupt them all.
“So do I,” Geoffrey answers.
Anna continues to loiter in the doorway of Geoffrey’s tiny office. It takes him a moment to realise that she’s there because Geoffrey is still midway in thought and has allowed his drifting to show on his face.
He tells her, because his current policy of not lying to the people who care about him includes Anna. Geoffrey says, “Richard once told me that Oliver’s watchword was accessibility.”
Anna wrinkles her nose. “To the Board members and in grant applications maybe? Otherwise... I never got the impression he liked audiences very much.”
“I don’t know. He cared about it more than I did. I always thought – once upon a time, I did not especially consider the make-up of our audience, except in so far as that I prefer it when they’re enthusiastic about theatre. Granted I have oftentimes been disappointed on that front. And I hated ‘accessible’ the way he said it. But there is something to be said for- I have to think of funders now, for one thing. But more than that-”
“What?” Anna asks.
“It was never anything remarkable to me to play Henry, unless in the way that being invited onto a stage was always remarkable. I played Hal, and Hamlet, and eventually I suppose I would have played Julius Caesar and Lear. All of Shakespeare’s princes and kings, laid out in a line in front of me. For a little while it felt like destiny.”
Anna’s smile is soft. “He’s going to be great. We’ll find you an audience.”
Henry IV Part 2 (1971)
Geoffrey was eleven. His Dad took him to the theatre because his Mom had the flu and they had already paid for the tickets. His father didn’t like to waste money.
Geoffrey was eleven and he knew Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet’s play-within-a-play trick, Macbeth with its witches, but when he discovered that this was Henry IV Part 2 he was worried that he wouldn’t understand what was happening.
Thankfully, Shakespeare was writing ‘Previously on’ montages three hundred and fifty years before television, and Geoffrey was anyway transported by Charles Kingman’s Falstaff, heartbroken and disbelieving in his abandonment by the soon-to-be-king.
Geoffrey’s father hadn’t wanted to talk about the tears – his or Geoffrey’s – or the rest of the play. But when Geoffrey recounted the story to his mother, borrowing a trick he hadn’t been taught yet about perspective, he told her about Falstaff, and aging, and his father had just nodded.
When Geoffrey announced, a week or so later, that he wanted to be an actor when he grew up, his father laughed. Geoffrey always hated people laughing at him.
Geoffrey finds Mitchell in his office first thing in the morning. “Hello. Did I forget a meeting?”
“No, it’s not- I just wanted to talk to you for a second, if that’s okay?”
Geoffrey waves accommodatingly at the second-hand couch he and Ellen dragged in here a few months ago. “What can I do for you?”
“I guess I just wanted to talk about the play? Ms Conroy said there was some press today. I wanted to see if you wanted me to say anything in particular?”
“Yes, there is press today. No, I have no instructions for what you should say. Honestly, you would be better asking Anna. She’s good with that kind of thing.”
“Anna said that if you said that I was to remind you that you aren’t allowed to delegate all of the administrative responsibilities to her any more.”
Geoffrey curses. “Did she now?”
“Okay. Well. Let’s turn that around. Is there anything you would like me to say?” Geoffrey asks.
Mitchell is silent for a long moment. “Anna said they were going to ask about blind casting.”
“They might. I imagine they’re more likely to ask that of me, but who knows. You don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to.”
“Won’t that be...?”
“Mitchell, I can safely guarantee that no matter how badly you answer, you will not do any worse than I have fucked up interviews in my day.”
“That’s not really comforting.”
“Oh. Okay. How about... just tell the truth. It’s easy to remember, it’ll probably give the best quote, and we’ll deal with any fall-out tomorrow.”
Anna knocks on the frame of the door. “Geoffrey?”
“Basil is here for you.”
“How is he not dead yet?”
“Geoffrey!” Anna is still too good to work in this industry.
“Fine, fine,” Geoffrey tells her. “I’m going. He’s set up in the rehearsal room?”
Geoffrey smiles at Mitchell. “It’s going to be fine. If worse comes to worst, just start crying and wait for Anna to rescue you.”
“Please don’t do that,” she tells him.
“It’ll be fine,” Geoffrey says again. “It’s going to be a great show, tell them that.”
Geoffrey heads down the hallway to the rehearsal room before he can make things worse. Anna has set it up with table and chairs, glasses of water as well as coffee and cookies. Geoffrey really needs to work out how to pay her more.
“Basil,” he says. “An unexpected pleasure. I didn’t think you reviewed houses smaller than nine hundred. Or travelled further than two hours away from New Burbage.”
Basil’s smile looks false. “Not generally, no, but when I am told that Geoffrey Tennant has a modern reinterpretation of a classic Shakespeare, who am I to stay away?”
“It’s not a reinterpretation, Basil.”
“I meant that-”
“Truthfully, all good productions offer a reinterpretation, but we’re bringing it from the text. We will explore the complexity of the moral perspectives posed by the play in respect to war, duty and reconciliation.”
“And the casting?”
“The cast are included in that ‘we’, Basil, yes. Along with my designers, my General Manager, I’m sure my wife will have an opinion...”
“How is Ellen?”
“This morning she was extremely unhappy about the noises made by our coffee machine, but other than that I believe she’s fine. She’s in the Ibsen next month, you should come and review that.”
“You aren’t directing that one?”
Geoffrey hadn’t felt it was wise to direct Ellen in ‘A Doll’s House’, living with her in a depiction of an unhappy marriage riven with debt and disappointment. They’re happy, but he is always worried that Ellen will realise that she shouldn’t be. “No,” he tells Basil. “I’ve had my hands full with the Henry V, we have an outdoor children’s work opening in the spring, Sophie wrote a really interesting piece we’re going to try in a workshop production, and besides all of that I’m doing half the running of this company.”
Basil holds his hands up. “It wasn’t a criticism, Geoffrey, just looking for a little insight into the artistic process. Now, tell our readers why you chose Henry V?”
Richard II (1981)
“Why did you choose this play?” Geoffrey demanded. He was wandering around an entirely white stage, dressed all in red. The floor was still slightly tacky under his bare feet, and they would have to paint it back to black again at the end of the run.
Darren answered, “Because you hate it.”
“I don’t hate it, I- and why then, why, would that make you choose it, when you know I have to be in the wretched thing and you’re the one who’ll be assessed on it.” He tugged at the crimson collar of his shirt, at the crudely spray-painted red crown atop his hair. “And what is your obsession with this-”
“Did you or did you not vow to take my direction seriously this time, Geoffrey?”
“I believe I added a caveat-”
“I was in your damned ‘naturalistic’ Richard III, and suffered under the indignity of what you call a lighting design, so the least-”
Geoffrey reminded himself that there were no horrifying historical settings misapplied to this production. There was no nudity. Or at least, only partial nudity, and only his. There were copious amounts of fake blood and by the end of the first dress rehearsal the newly white floor was already starting to take on a tinge of pink. There were supposed to be white backdrops but Darren had removed them until opening night, since neither of them wanted to do the extra laundry. Still. “You cannot keep using imagery as a substitute for emotional direction!”
“The scenery will paint the emotional landscape!”
“You have me bedecked as literally a blood-soaked king, with a bloody crown. There’s no landscape here, it’s a cartoon.” He took the crown and waved it in Darren’s face.
Darren snatched it, and for a moment Geoffrey held on.
When he let go, Darren hissed at him.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Geoffrey asked.
“What is wrong with me?”
"Yes!” Geoffrey exhaled. “Why this play?”
“Perhaps I just wanted to have you murdered every night.” Darren shrugged.
Geoffrey would concede that there was, in fact, something a little interesting about the way Darren was staging the death. There would be no blood in that part of the scene, neither on Geoffrey’s Richard II or his murderer. The blood appeared – suddenly, shockingly – when the body is delivered to Henry IV, where it soaks both the corpse and the new king, making literal the blood on his ‘guilty hand’. It was exactly the kind of direction Darren loved, and Geoffrey wouldn’t have chosen it himself, but he believed it could work for the audience.
“It’s fascinating, isn’t it,” Darren said. “Richard believes he is divinely appointed to be higher than the rest, no matter his actions. He can do as he likes, because he’s the king. Up until Henry, who waltzes in operating under entirely different assumptions. He’s an instrumentalist - what matters to him is what gets done.”
“Yes, but he also obsesses with the idea of going to Jerusalem across the three plays, he’s arguably less ruthless than his son turns out to be – Henry’s fall starts not just in deposing the king but that he regrets his death. It’s personal, it’s not just concept.”
“Of course it is concept.” Darren bit out each word, taking a step closer to Geoffrey every time.
Geoffrey was never entirely sure how this happened. His hand was at the base of Darren’s throat and Darren was – God – biting in the general direction of Geoffrey’s ear, cheek, lips.
“You are a terrible director,” Geoffrey told him.
“And you are a waste of your talents,” Darren answered. “You’ll never think big enough to break out of this.” Darren’s hands sent a few of Geoffrey’s shirt buttons bouncing into the wings and one of them would have to fix that later. “You only ever think about one character at a time, you care too much about individual motivation rather than the overall effect of the piece, and you-” His hands had reached the buttons of Geoffrey’s pants and Geoffrey had to kick out of them hurriedly so the costume didn’t end up entirely ruined.
“But aside from that...” Geoffrey murmured, “what did you think of my Richard III?”
Darren groaned. “If t’were possible to fuck sense into you, I would have done so by now, so I can only assume-”
“Shush now,” Geoffrey told him, and got to work on Darren’s clothing instead.
Afterwards, Geoffrey sprawled on one of the removed cloth backdrops, accepting the fact that he would have to take them to the laundry later. Darren sat on a plastic chair and pulled his boots back on. He looked seriously over at Geoffrey. “I don’t suppose I could persuade you to dye your hair red to match the crown.”
“No, that won’t be happening.”
“Fine, fine. Coward.” He smirked at Geoffrey and pulled a notebook from his pocket, scrawling some undoubtedly absurd reminder to himself.
“I don’t want to break out,” Geoffrey told him. “I want this.”
Jack looks the same as he did when Geoffrey first met him. Or, not the same, there are new lines at the corners of his eyes and his hair doesn’t fall into them any more. But perhaps he looks the way Geoffrey always thought of him, privately, as someone not entirely comfortable with their physical existence. Jack’s shoulders hunch in, making him look smaller, and his hands still make fists in the cuffs of his jacket.
“What can I do for you?” Geoffrey asked.
“You know why I’m here.”
“You’re directing a film. Faustus, I hear. Which doesn’t answer my question.”
“I can’t just be here to see if you might give me a pointer or two?”
“That depends. Are you going to give me anything in exchange for my assistance with this picture of yours? I’m a busy man and a ‘partially modern language’ version of Marlowe’s masterpiece isn’t exactly the-”
“Fine, fine, of course I’ll help, what do you need?”
Jack rolls his eyes. “And it’s not like- I know what you’re thinking, it’s not a gimmick.”
“It’s also a fusion between period and modern dress, I believe.”
He holds his hands up in penitence. “What’s Kate up to right now?”
“She’s in England until next week, she has this visiting lecturer thing, you know how she gets with the responsibility to not be a jackass to the next generation of actors.”
“I do know that, yes. And where’s... forgive me, I’ve forgotten his name.”
“Finn’s already up in Vancouver doing some location scouting. I’m going to meet him there in a couple of days.”
Geoffrey studies his face for a moment. “Did you ever like acting, Jack?”
Jack smothers a small laugh. “Did you?”
“I don’t know,” Geoffrey says. “I loved it. In the way that something that consumes you feels like love. It filled me with absolute, transformative ecstasy, better than drugs and alcohol and a close tie with sex. But I’m not sure that I ever entirely enjoyed it, no.”
“Me neither. Kate- Kate loves it and enjoys it and it’s all she’s ever wanted to do. Finn says he likes it but wasn’t good. Me though... I was scared, all the time, you know? Theatre was worse because it had to be perfect in the moment, you can’t look at it from a few more angles until you find the right one. I like directing more. Or... directing is better for me, if you know what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean. Now. You have people who know much more about film direction than I do. I’m sure your contacts list is a sight to behold. Why are you in a suburb in Montreal talking to me?”
Jack shrugs. “Because I’m going to fuck with the text. And I figure if I’m going to do that, I should talk to someone who hates the idea.”
“Yeah you do. I’m not, like, making it all modern and just keeping a few thees and thous for colour. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. The speeches are still in, I’m just- it’s a slippery text, all fucked up with promises and money and sex. It feels really fucking modern, even with all the devils and shit. I want it to work from both directions.”
“Okay, well, first thing-”
Jack produces a well-thumbed copy of the play, full of sticky notes and marginalia. “The play’s the thing, I remember.”
“So you do.”
Henry IV Part 1 (1994)
“Just give me a straight answer!” Geoffrey demanded. He rolled his eyes at Oliver’s smirk. “I need your help.”
“We had notes three hours ago, my dear, this is now my drinking time.” He gestured vaguely around at the increasingly inebriated company surrounding them both in the bar.
Oliver closed his eyes. “What exactly is the problem?”
“Foreknowledge. Or foreshadowing, I don’t know.”
“These are histories, Geoffrey, the plot twists are hardly a surprise to the audience.”
“But that’s just- when the plays were written, the history itself was not unknown but the plays were produced serially. When Hal says that he’s just playing at his loose behaviour, that he can stop when he needs to be king, the original audience doesn’t have the context of the later plays. They don’t know he goes on to the speeches at Agincourt.”
Oliver nodded. “A modern audience, however, may know the later plays but not the history. Or neither, depending on how full of bored schoolchildren the houses are. What’s your point?”
“How do I play it?” Geoffrey asked. “Does it matter that the context has changed, does it matter that the audience will know he’s telling the truth if they know the rest of the plays? You don’t usually- you don’t usually have additional material, but I have the other two plays, plus the actual history-”
“I wouldn’t pay the true history any more attention than the bard did, especially if you ever intend to play Richard III.”
“That’s not what I-”
“This is all irrelevant, Geoffrey.” At Geoffrey’s scowl, Oliver shook his head. “Does Hal believe it, when he says it?”
“That is what matters. That is all that matters, when you perform the scene. Not what the audience do or do not know, or how much additional baggage the Henriad enthusiasts bring to the evening. You need to discover what Hal believes, in himself, even if he’s not aware of it, and play that. That is all that matters.”
Geoffrey looked at him for a long moment, and then rested his forehead on the blessedly cool bar. “I’m sorry.”
He could hear Oliver laughing, not completely unkindly. Oliver said, “You are forgiven. Buy me another drink.”
Ellen is sitting in Geoffrey's office when he returns there after the end of the first day of rehearsal. He smiles at her, because no matter how many arguments they have had in Geoffrey’s various offices, he is always glad to see her there.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi.” Geoffrey asks her, “Do you like the play?” because he realised earlier that he doesn't know that either. This gap in conversation, at least he can rectify.
“Which play, dear?” she asks.
She tips her head to one side. “The Princess doesn't have a lot to do. I have even less, though I knew that when I agreed to it.”
Geoffrey has to laugh. “Are you capable of evaluating a play other than for whether it has a good role for you?”
“Katharine’s a little beyond me now, even if I did want to play her. And yes, Geoffrey, of course I am. Sometimes I thought about whether it had a good role for you. Although there were somewhat more of those, of course. I can’t be quite so choosy.”
She shakes it off. “I like yours. I don't think much of any of them on the page, as well you know, however much I love the text out loud. And I think a good production can bring something to pretty much any of them. So I like yours, yes. Or I will when it’s done.”
“Thank you,” he says.
“And you're one to talk about choosing plays based on whether they have a good role for me. You gave me Antony and Cleopatra as a honeymoon present.”
“I had made you a promise.”
“And then we did Hedda Gabler.”
“Are you here to ask me for another play?” Geoffrey asks. “They’ve already printed the posters for Doll’s House.”
“Your rehearsal today.”
“You were on time.”
“I’m always on time on the first day,” Ellen tells him.
That’s not true, but Geoffrey ignores it. “Was there a problem?”
“Can you take a note on your direction without assuming it's an attack?” Ellen asks.
He considers this for a moment. “Yes, go on.”
“I think he needs a little more direction than you’re giving him right now. Mitchell. I know you have your thing, with the questions, and that's great, but this is his first Shakespeare and he needs a bit more help.”
All Geoffrey had asked him was to consider to what extent Henry believed his own ‘band of brothers’ speech, or if it was solely propaganda. It affects how the rest of the play is performed, and Geoffrey thought it was better to get it under control at the outset.
Geoffrey says, “He has acted before, Ellen. They create these barriers in their head about Shakespeare when the questions are fundamentally about what the character wants, what the play is trying to tell us, and that comes from-“
She cuts in gently. “These barriers he has. Just because they're happening in his head, it doesn't mean they're not real.”
Geoffrey runs his hands through his hair. “Touché.” He tries to pick his words carefully. “I don’t want to just tell him what to do. I don’t want him to be afraid of...”
“Of what?” she asks. “The role? The text?”
Henry IV Part 2 (1995)
The day’s rehearsal was not going well. Structurally it was an odd play, in terms of the character crossover in scenes, and some of the cast had a lot of sitting around to do while Oliver worked feverishly on blocking.
Geoffrey had walked through this scene eleven times already. He headed to his mark again. “Would not this nave of a wheel have his ears cut off?”
“No!” Oliver called out. “From Falstaff’s line.”
“Sorry James,” Geoffrey said. James shrugged one shoulder easily.
But Oliver advanced on Geoffrey. “Pay attention.”
“Sorry, I thought you asked for-”
“Don’t think, Geoffrey, it doesn’t suit you. Say your lines and go where I send you. Anything else is fucking vanity and I will not have it.”
There was a silence in the theatre. Though Oliver was frequently cruel and occasionally personal with it, he was not very often cruel to Geoffrey in public. Geoffrey was more concerned about the instinctive step he took back as Oliver stepped forward, moving off his mark. He nodded once, sharp, and blinked his eyes clear.
Geoffrey didn’t recall much of the last hour of rehearsal. He would have to go to Susan to copy from the book later, lest Oliver had to repeat the whole afternoon’s blocking to him.
Near the end, Oliver turned to him and asked, “Geoffrey, can we try that with your hand out of your pocket, please?”
Geoffrey obediently removed his hand, noticing only afterwards that it was trembling. He walked through the scene again, conscious of Oliver’s gaze fixed on him more determinedly than usual.
Oliver finished the rehearsal early, unusually, and Ellen grabbed Geoffrey’s hand as he tried to leave the theatre. She said, “Come and have a smoke with me.”
Geoffrey followed her out to the back of the theatre, where they were watched over by a couple of stagehands and the lighting designer. Ellen leaned her head against his shoulder and he felt like crying again.
She said, “He’s a grumpy old man.”
“And frankly, he’s said worse to me ten times already. He’s said worse to everyone, Geoff, you’ve just escaped it so far.”
“He’s an awful, grumpy old man who’s grumpier than usual because he can’t get laid.”
That startled a laugh out of him. “Now, how on earth would you know that?”
“Cyril told me in the bar. You should come tonight.” She reached out and squeezed his hand.
“I thought you didn’t want to- I thought you wanted to be discreet.”
Ellen shrugged. “I thought you did. You had that look.”
“Like you were imagining what Oliver would say if he found out.”
“I told him already. I thought it was- I thought he deserved to know, even if we weren’t telling anyone else.”
“He was fine. Well, he was Oliver, but by Oliver terms he was fine.”
She was quiet for a moment, taking a long drag on her cigarette. “Did you tell him you were having sex with me, or did you tell him that you weren’t having sex with him any more?”
“Jesus, Ellen.” Geoffrey cast a furtive glance at their potential eavesdroppers.
“Oh come on,” she told him, “everyone knows. Or even if they don’t know, they know he’s...”
“He’s always been a little odd about you. Everyone who’s ever worked with the two of you knows that. Some of them came to me to talk about it when I joined.”
Geoffrey couldn’t decide whether to cover his face or run away entirely. “It’s not like- I’m not going to say that we haven’t ever, because clearly you wouldn’t believe me, and it’s not as though Oliver doesn’t have a history of screwing around with actors.”
“Yes, but there’s screwing around and there’s... he’s not the only one who’s odd about it.”
“Sorry, sorry. It’s not a judgement, I’m just saying...” She leaned against his side again. “I get it, I suppose is what I’m saying. And I’m here.”
Ellen stares at him. “You don’t know.”
“Ellen.” Geoffrey had been hoping to put off this conversation for a couple of days. It wasn’t lying, it was just... he had thought he would figure it out. But they are rapidly reaching the end of the rehearsal period and today it was very apparent that Geoffrey is still undecided about the truth of the play.
“You don’t know.” Ellen says again. “I thought this was just you and your process but you actually don’t know.”
He shrugs. “I wanted to involve the company in the direction.”
She gives that excuse the courtesy it deserves. “Why on earth did you decide to put this on if you didn’t know what you wanted to do with it?”
“I assumed inspiration would come to me. I’ve never done it before, they haven’t had it at Théâtre-Marie in a decade, or at New Burbage in the last five - I thought it might get an audience. There are some good speeches, there are a couple of bilingual scenes. I know Hal, or I thought I did. I thought the rest would work itself out.”
“I’ve played Hal. I should know the answer to every question Mitch is asking me. But the character at the end of this play isn’t the one who- Hal is conflicted, at the end of Henry IV, or at least that’s how I played it. He loved Falstaff, even though the man’s a drunken old fool who could have been the ruin of him. This Henry, I don’t feel the conflict in the same way, he’s certain he’s right, willing enough to stake his life and the life of everyone around him on a hope and I don’t know if that was always true, or if he changes through the plays, and I need to know, Ellen.”
“Are you going to help, or are you going to keep looking at me like that?”
“Both, I think.” She stands up. “Okay. You know what we’re going to do?”
“I have considered fleeing in screaming hysteria to the Prairies, or maybe the Yukon? But I am willing to take other suggestions under advisement in the interim.”
“Who do you trust?” she asks.
He stares at her. “Of course I trust you, Ellen.”
“Not me, I know you trust me! Who else in the cast? Let’s not start a panic, but if you really want to devise your way out of this, let’s do that. Mitchell, I assume?”
“Therese? Who is there that’s worked with us before? Jerry, of course. We need enough to cover all the parts, even if there’s more than the fair share of multi-roling.”
“You want to do a table-read?”
She looks back at him. “What is it you always say when you can’t think of what else to do? Let’s go back to the text.”
Secretly, Geoffrey quite enjoyed the corporate workshops. The prepared material was without exception ridiculous, but in the gaps between one show opening and the preparation for the next, it gave him an outlet that wasn't providing ever more specific notes to his infuriated company.
Geoffrey read from the packet in front of him. "Inspirational leadership lessons from Shakespeare's kings. It seems as though we could have been a little more specific on which kings here - Leontes, for example, would not be the best example, unless abandoning your daughter and causing the death of your wife and son is the kind of role model you're looking for at...”
After a moment, one of the women filled in the answer for him. “Acheronta Media.”
Geoffrey blinked. “Really? So maybe I’m wrong about the role models. Acheron means hell, doesn’t it?”
A different person, a man in a tan suit, answered. “It’s Latin, a quote from Freud. ‘Flectere si nequeo superos Acheronta movebo.’ It’s about finding unconventional solutions, which is what we do in the company.”
Geoffrey remembered the quotation, pulling it from a dim and distant memory. “If I cannot influence the gods, I shall move all hell.”
They stared at him.
“It’s from the Aeneid. And, in fact, could lead us nicely into some Shakespeare.” He’ll go back to internally despairing about modern corporate culture later. “If you could find-” Geoffrey flicked through the pages. Fifteen pages of text without context, and none of them the one he wanted. Admittedly, Richard III was no role model either. He sighed. “Or I suppose I could just read it myself: Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to't pell-mell
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.”
There was more staring.
Geoffrey gestured with one of his playtexts. “Richard is not exactly one of Shakespeare’s most lovable royals, but he is undeniably compelling, at least in part because of his addresses to the audience. ‘Determined to prove a villain’, he tells us, right at the beginning of the play, and so he goes on to do. At least he never lies to us.”
Geoffrey’s smile was met with more staring and silence. He tried looking through the booklets again, while they shuffled in their seats.
“Ah,” Geoffrey said, “we do have this one. Can I have a volunteer?”
A woman nervously raised her hand.
“Wonderful,” Geoffrey said. “And what is your name, may I ask?”
“Helen,” she told him. “Assistant Communications Manager.”
“An excellent responsibility. Okay, Helen, if you turn to page three, you’re going to be reading Prince Hal.”
He found more volunteers from the group, tried to make sure to offer readings to some of those who looked hesitant to put themselves forward but didn’t seem actively terrified.
They worked through Hal’s Part 1, Act I speech, Part 2’s renunciation of Falstaff, and then to Henry V’s St Crispin's Day Speech and slaughter of the French prisoners.
“What do we think it means,” Geoffrey asked, “to have those speeches all from one character? What does it tell us about how Shakespeare writes about kingship? Is the perspective consistent?”
One of the men - an account manager named Thomas - looked up from his hands. “I mean, they are all from the one person though, aren’t they? Like, they’re all Shakespeare and he wrote these speeches that look like they conflict with each other, so maybe that’s...”
A few of the circle laughed and Thomas looked back down. Geoffrey held up his hand. “Wait, that’s an interesting point, isn’t it? ‘One man in his time plays many parts.’ Shakespeare understood the roles people take on or have given to them, he was interested in complexity. He wrote forty plays, give or take, assuming you believe he actually wrote them and don’t subscribe to some of the more lurid alternative theories, in which case meet me in the bar later and we can have an open and honest discussion about classist bullshit. But the plays certainly don’t always seem consistent with each other in worldview, though they are in writing style and in his many reused devices. Shakespeare wrote some of the most beautiful love poetry in the English language, and he abandoned his wife for a career in London theatre and almost certainly philandered with a range of women and men while doing so. Perhaps it’s not that Hal is unusually changeable or devious – he’s only a man responding to his circumstances in the best way he can.”
Helen jumped in with an addition – genuinely surprising to Geoffrey – about the way this thought connected to the ostensible theme of leadership lessons. Another woman added a query about the ethics of eavesdropping on employees. Geoffrey laughed. “From a purely personal perspective, I don’t recommend trying to find out what company members think about you through disguises. But as I receive extremely pointed feedback on my job performance in the local and national press, I may be less inclined to seek it out elsewhere.”
They laughed back, and it sent them into a digression on rumour, which helpfully allowed Geoffrey to introduce further text, and all in all it was not unlike many of his college seminars, without Darren objecting to every purely textual interpretation Geoffrey brought to the plays.
Oliver didn’t usually visit during these events. Instead he fell into step with Geoffrey as he was leaving. “’The histories are complex’ is hardly a new take,” Oliver said.
Geoffrey tried to ignore him.
“Neither is ‘Shakespeare was complex’, for that matter.”
“What do you want, Oliver?”
“We never just talk any more.”
“No. Because you would, as always, much rather shout down any and all of my thoughts about texts I’m not even directing this season.”
Oliver sighed. “I want to help you. You used to appreciate my help.”
“That was a long time ago.” Geoffrey reached his office door and attempted to close Oliver on the other side of it. As ever, the attempt was unsuccessful.
“You used to like talking to me,” Oliver said.
“I used to worship you,” Geoffrey reminded him. “We didn’t talk, we argued, and then you would win because you could never let me have- and it wasn’t enough for you.”
“Because worship and devotion is a lovely thing but it was Ellen you went home with at the end of the evening. And because I was not particularly complex, Geoffrey. I wanted more of you than you gave me. So did Ellen, for that matter.”
“What did Ellen-“
“Ellen thinks that you don’t respect her.”
“Of course I respect her. I love her, as you so helpfully reminded me.”
“I believe I reminded you that you were erotically attached to her, but I don’t deny that you love her too.” Oliver met Geoffrey’s gaze, fixed in the way it always was when he believed he was telling Geoffrey something profound. As though it was something Geoffrey should record and remember for later. “You don’t ask her about the show.”
“Yes I do,” Geoffrey responded.
“Not the way you do with me.”
“Ellen isn’t a director, she doesn’t look at things the same way, and any way she hates me right now so it’s not exactly helpful to-”
Oliver interrupted him. “People aren’t as complex as you think they are. Theatre makes things have meaning, ascribes fate and divination and calamity to some very simple questions. Find out what a person wants, deep in their soul, and you’ll know almost everything you need to know about them.”
“Did you always want to be an actor?” Geoffrey asks.
They’re outdoors, in the park near the theatre, and Geoffrey is trying to conjure visions of the fields of France. He has taken Mitchell aside and is trying to help them both reach a conclusion on this scene, most of the way done with another read-through. They’re going to get there, but Geoffrey is still waiting for the moment.
Mitchell shakes his head. “Not always, no. I always liked performing for people, I was always trying to make my mom laugh – she could be pretty serious most of the time so when I got her it was like... And then when I was sixteen I took an English class where we read Julius Caesar.”
“Did you play Caesar or Brutus?”
Geoffrey is thinking about it now, thinking about Mitchell playing Mark Antony if they could win the next residency. He asks, “And that was it?”
Mitch shrugs. “I knew I wanted to play one of the leads, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”
“No. Can you use that? I have frequently been reminded that we ought not to rely on context from Henry IV, but you know them, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Hal knew he was supposed to be king, but no one else accepted that. Even his own father thought Hotspur would make a better heir. Hal had to make shows of proof, even when he knew what he was capable of. And in the end, when we reach Agincourt, he’s still being doubted by Westmoreland. Can we try that?”
Mitchell nods, and they walk back to the rest of the cast to try the scene. It’s better, but it keeps stumbling.
“It’s the speech, isn’t it?” Geoffrey asks. “It’s always a speech.”
Mitchell is watching him steadily, not launching again into the speech which Geoffrey will admit is one of the most famous in the canon. He thinks about getting Jack on the phone, still somewhere in Vancouver working on his film, to talk Mitch through it. But he doesn’t think the character motivation is actually Mitch’s concern here.
“Talk me through it,” Geoffrey says.
“’We few, we happy few’” Mitchell quotes. “It needs to move armies. The audience needs to believe that when they hear him talk, believe that the soldiers listen to it and are ready to die for him and for England. It can’t sound like a parody, they need to believe-”
“They will,” Geoffrey tells him.
“It’s too easy to screw up.”
Ay, there’s the rub. Geoffrey says, softly, “It doesn’t matter.”
Mitchell blinks at him, wide eyes of youth. “But-”
“It’s also the only thing that matters. If we fuck up this performance on Friday, it is permanently fucked. That is a fact. It will be the only moment in the whole of history when this exact performance - with this audience, in this place – it’s the only moment it will ever happen. It is unique in the universe. For someone in the audience it will be their first Henry V, almost certainly it will be someone’s first Shakespeare. It may even be their first experience of theatre. But if you think about that you’ll go mad.” Geoffrey cuts himself off. “A sensation I know rather a lot about. So think about it this way instead: you are young. We might go bust and close next week and you might only get to do this three times. But there will be other shows. Don’t- don’t spend your life thinking about how you and they will remember this one.”
“I don’t know how to-”
“You can't think about who else has played the role, or will, or whether last night's rehearsal will be better than tonight's show. You cannot think of the impossible burden and honour of bringing this play to the stage in a way which resonates whether the audience has seen it a hundred times or never before. So instead, all we can do is focus on each performance as it comes. One performance in front of one audience. Find your light, say the right words in the right order. Let the rest take care of itself.”
Mitchell gives him a wry look. “It’s that easy?”
“Personally? I think it’s one of the hardest things in the world. But I know you can do it. And when the audience leave afterwards, all they’re going to be thinking about is that when they heard it, they would have followed you into hell. So let’s try the speech. Ben, could we have the cue please?”
Benoit looks across their imagined paltry forces. “O that we now had here, But one ten thousand of those men in England, That do no work to-day!”
There is nothing but the sound of birdsong and distantly, a few children laughing whose parents have braved the cold to take them outside this morning.
And then Mitchell takes a breath and looks at Ben. “What's he that wishes so?
My cousin, Westmorland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.”
Geoffrey focuses on that. The rest will take care of itself.
Henry IV Part 1 (1994)
Geoffrey had fight training in the morning but he was free for the rest of the day. He wasn’t happy with how the battle with Hotspur was looking. Geoffrey had played duel scenes before, he knew how to convince with a dulled rapier, but Hal was a soldier. This had to look like real violence, as though the two of them were desperate to make an end of it.
The rehearsal rooms were all occupied, and the dressing rooms too small, but there was no one rehearsing on the stage itself this afternoon. The house lights were off but there was light in the wings and the ghost light on the stage itself, so there was illumination enough to see by.
Geoffrey found his mark, and worked through the fight. And again.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, one of the auditorium doors opened noisily. “Geoffrey, what the hell are you-?” There was a click as Oliver stopped talking abruptly.
Geoffrey looked out at him, swiping his hair out of his eyes, noticing only then that his shirt was drenched in sweat. He tried to get his breathing under control. “Were you looking for me?”
Oliver had his voice back. He walked through the auditorium and clambered up onto the stage. “Where’s your other half?”
“The gallant Hotspur. ‘The very straightest plant’. Or have you moved onto the beauteous Lady Percy?”
“Why do you always assume I’m having torrid affairs with the entire cast?” Geoffrey asked.
“Because you flirt with the entire cast.” Oliver reached into his pocket to find a handkerchief, which he dabbed at Geoffrey’s forehead before handing it over.
“I don’t flirt.” Geoffrey wiped his face. “You accuse me of flirting every time I pay attention to someone who isn’t you.”
“You are an inveterate flirt and you will drive some poor young thing to despair one day.”
“What about you?” Geoffrey asked.
“Will I drive you to despair?”
“If you will insist on both forgetting your blocking in Act II scene 2, and exhausting yourself sparring against the ghost light when you should be contemplating the motivations of the madcap Prince of Wales, certainly.”
Geoffrey made to exit stage right. “I can go and do that now, if you prefer.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“Well, we can’t stay here.” Though it was tempting.
Oliver grabbed hold of Geoffrey’s arm. “My office is empty.”
“Always the romantic,” Geoffrey groused. But he knew well enough that there were no more romances this season. This one is a history: threats and wagers, destiny and disappointments, conclusions all written already.
Geoffrey should have gone to learn his lines, or to think about his motivation. He didn’t. He jumped from the stage and offered Oliver a hand down. Oliver settled his palm on Geoffrey’s back, still damp with sweat, and steered him towards the door.
They do another line run in the theatre. Ellen arrives a moment before Geoffrey, murmuring “not late” in his ear as he passes.
Geoffrey kisses her cheek. “I know.”
In the break, no one really leaves, just drifting out to collect coffees and wandering back in again, sprawling in the auditorium seats and chatting.
Maya kneels up on her seat, precariously given the hinge, to look at Ellen over the back of it. “Don’t you get bored with this?”
“I’m sorry, dear?”
“Just- you’ve played Juliet, Ophelia, Hermione... you’re doing Ibsen and Chekhov this season. Why’d you agree to play the Queen in this one as well?”
Ellen’s smile is soft yet full of irony. “Geoffrey asked me.”
“I didn’t, actually,” Geoffrey volunteers. “But Patricia was supposed to be doing it and then she got cast in some short film that needed to be shot this month. Ellen volunteered.”
She shrugs. “I like to watch him work. And it’s nice to have him grateful.” She turns a sly look towards Geoffrey.
“I love the two of you,” Maya says. “I can’t believe you’ve managed to stay together so long after everything.” She calls up to Geoffrey on the stage. “I hope you got her something nice for this.” She looks back to Ellen, “Is he good with that kind of thing?”
Ellen thinks about it for a second. “The best gift Geoffrey ever gave me?” She doesn’t pause. “Lady M, Cleopatra – eventually-”
Geoffrey cuts in. “The engagement ring, I thought, was rather nice.”
She obligingly flutters her hand in his direction, ring on her finger. “That wasn’t a gift, that was a request. One that you took a decade to fulfil, I should note.”
“And I still married him!”
Geoffrey walks downstage to lean off the edge of it, holding out his hand towards her. “Thou hast me, if thou hast me, at the worst; and thou
shalt wear me, if thou wear me, better and better:
and therefore tell me, most fair Katharine, will you
have me? Put off your maiden blushes; avouch the
thoughts of your heart with the looks of an empress;
take me by the hand, and say 'Harry of England I am
thine:' which word thou shalt no sooner bless mine
ear withal, but I will tell thee aloud 'England is
thine, Ireland is thine, France is thine, and Harry
Plantagenet is thine’.”
Ellen stares at him and gets up from her seat. She walks to the edge of the stage and takes his hand. Grumbling, she tells the cast, “And then he does that.” She kisses his knuckles. “Asshole.”
“Would you like to get back to the rehearsal now?”
“I suppose we should. Places, everyone.”
Henry IV Part 2 (1995)
Geoffrey was feeling the whole play, both plays, overwrought. His father was dead and his mentor gone, and he collapsed into Oliver’s arms after the curtain calls. He dimly heard people navigating around them, as Oliver pulled them towards the wall. Geoffrey felt the secured fly ropes at his back.
Oliver huffed a barely audible laugh near Geoffrey's ear. “There there.”
“Don’t patronise me.”
“Try that again when you're not weeping.”
“I'm not-” Geoffrey didn’t always notice when he cried onstage. This had been such a long process. He would be glad of the break.
“Hmm.” Oliver was non-committal.
“I hate you.”
“I know you do, darling.”
“I have notes, of course.”
“You always do.”
“Yes. Still, though. You were very good. Turning aside one that loves you, that calls you his heart, I thought my own might break.”
“He has a duty,” Geoffrey reminded him. “Their history matters less than what he needs to do.”
“Next season,” Oliver said, still so close to Geoffrey’s ear. “I think it's nearly time for the other Prince, don't you?”
Anna comes to find him backstage before the half-hour. Geoffrey smiles at her. “That’s a nice dress.”
She looks down at herself briefly. “Opening night.” She has to greet guests on behalf of Theatre Sans Argent, while Geoffrey lurks in the wings and makes notes on every line of every scene. She says, “Thank you. Everything okay? Do you need me to do anything?”
He takes a moment. “I think we’re okay.”
“Good. That’s good. So no...?”
“We have all the cast, none of them are in any kind of altered state as far as I know; I personally am not currently in the middle of a breakdown. If it wasn’t that we wasted most of the last dress rehearsal clearing up blood and broken glass, I would be concerned things were going too well.”
Anna bites her lip. “Did Jerry get stitched up?”
“He did. He only has one working hand right now, but I think we can play it as a character choice for Exeter.”
“You’re sure everything is okay?”
“We’re going to find out, aren’t we?”
She rolls her eyes. “Okay. In that case, I also need to remind you that we’re going to New Burbage in June, because I think you signed the acceptance without reading it, but someone is probably going to ask you about it after the show.”
“Richard is up to The King and I, and Darren is doing Titus Andronicus, so God help us all.”
“And we’re somehow compelled to-”
“Darren is here tonight. I don’t know why, but he is here, and the theatrical world is not big enough for us to- anyway.” She hugs him brusquely. “Break legs.”
“Have fun with our honoured guests. Don’t drink all the wine until I get there.”
She shakes her head and heads back up to the circle to play host, along with the Artistic Director of Théâtre-Marie, and the Mayor of Montreal. Geoffrey needs to figure out a way to pay her more.
He takes a long breath. This is the biggest house he’s opened a show in since New Burbage. People are relying on him.
Ellen comes to find him, halfway in her costume and with her hair pinned up. She’s not on until Act V. She’s holding a playtext in her hand and Geoffrey looks at it askance.
He says, “You know your lines already, don’t you? There are only five of them.”
“And whose fault is that? Anyway, it’s not mine.” She holds it out to him. “I thought you might like to see this.”
It is Henry V, and when Geoffrey flicks through it for a moment he recognises the handwriting. “I don’t want Oliver’s version of the play right now. Where did you find this?”
“In a box of your things at the apartment. How much did you steal from his office?”
“A few bits and pieces. Just in case. I didn’t know that was in it, I don’t think.”
“That’s probably for the best.” She brushes the back of his hand with hers. “But take a look in the back.”
Geoffrey turns to the endpapers. “Why did he think he could draw?” It’s still – unmistakeably – a sketch of Geoffrey, in a costume which confusingly seems to be late nineteenth century. It’s dated to October 2000, around four years after Geoffrey’s breakdown. “You didn’t do Henry V that season.”
“No,” Ellen agrees. “He didn’t.”
“Mitch is going to be great.”
“Yes. It’s going to be a great show.”
“Don’t jinx it, please, I don’t think Jerry can take another trip to the hospital.”
She smiles at him. “Want me to get the cast together?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Geoffrey has been thinking about what he should say tonight over the last few days. He hadn’t come to any real conclusions. Now, he opens the playtext again and lands on the Prologue. Shakespeare is an expert in diminishing audience expectations, begging pardon for the absence of horses and flame. Darren would probably take that as a challenge. Geoffrey reads it through again, and when he looks up, his cast is assembled.
“Right at the start,” he tells them. “’Oh for a muse of fire’. Shakespeare acknowledges that theatre isn’t about a perfect depiction. The Prologue acknowledges the shared work, what the audience have to bring to the experience. It acknowledges that all theatre is, really, is telling stories to each other.” He pauses. “So if the audience don’t like it, it’s probably just because they’re bad listeners.”
There is a surprised burst of laughter, and abruptly less tension in the corridor.
Geoffrey goes on. “But I don’t think they will be. Mitchell. I think they’re going to be with us long before the speech. And once we get there, they’ll see the armies on both sides, they’ll see you outnumbered, and they’re going to be inspired. And if all else fails...”
“Find your light, and say the right words in the right order?” Mitch asks, grinning.
“And if you can’t do the second one, Cheryl will be in the wings with the prompt book. And so will I. Break legs.”
Ellen keeps him company through the prologue, holding his hand. She presses his fingertips before she heads back towards the green-room with a selection of magazines. “See you in the second half.”
Geoffrey, though, stands there for the rest of the first half, noting down the blocking that he realises now needs adjustment, pauses in speeches that aren’t landing correctly.
By the time they get through the interval and into Act IV, he can breathe again. Geoffrey watches the audience during the speech. He already knows what Mitchell can do; he needs to know that the audience are playing their part.
There’s a woman in the front row leaning forward to make sure she catches every word; a young man in the Gods gripping tightly to the safety rail; an older woman in the rear stalls whose hand has fluttered, seemingly instinctively, to press at her heart.
Geoffrey looks back at Mitchell and sees both the nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales and the King, ‘terrible in constant resolution’. He holds the text against his own heart and stops taking notes, just for a minute or two, so he can hear the story.