Cultural Memory and the Royal Shakespeare Company Productions "This England: The Histories," Winter/Spring 2001: Some Comments on Roberta Barker's "Well-Graced Actors and Their Doubles."
Pamela McCallum
University of Calgary

McCallum, Pamela. "Cultural Memory and the Royal Shakespeare Company Productions 'This England.'" Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 15.1-8 <URL:
  1. In her perceptive commentary on the Royal Shakespeare Company's presentation of Shakespeare's history plays during their 2000-2001 season Roberta Barker foregrounds the interaction between actors and their audience in the production of meaning. She convincingly argues for the crucial importance of comparisons that will inevitably be evoked in the minds of spectators: the plays themselves project differences between characters; a viewer may compare actions on stage with her mental images of characters, to her memories of previous productions of the same play or of similar plays; she may compare the performances to social assumptions about individuality and identity (1). Barker goes on to reflect on her responses and reactions, noting that her considerations are shaped by her "own subjectivity" and her construction of "unrealized textual potentialities" (8). Following from these astute observations about the uniquely situated positioning of audience response, I would like to offer some divergent comments on the RSC history plays, centred around Henry IV, Part One. As a scholar of twentieth-century English literature and critical theory, I came to the plays with only generalist expertise in Shakespearean studies, but with a special interest in the cultural representation of history. It is important also to record that, while the plays I saw had the same casts, directors and designers, I attended the productions during the London season in the winter and spring of 2001. That there were undoubtedly subtle, and possibly more substantial, changes in productions is confirmed by Samuel West, the actor who played Richard II, when he commented that David Troughton (Bolingbroke) had "so far come up with seven different endings for our play."

  2. The RSC series of the history plays was significantly titled "This England: The Histories," a designation which explicitly invited the audience to view the productions not only as theatrical and aesthetic presentations of a long-lost medieval past, but also as a prehistory of the present. It is important to emphasize that such a conception of historical interconnections does not situate itself in universalist claims about Shakespeare's representation of history. Nor does it necessarily imply an evolutionist progression of history from the late medieval period to the present. Rather, it suggests a juxtaposition of two moments of history whose mutual confrontation illuminates each other, a process Walter Benjamin described as "seiz[ing] hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger" (255). Striking comparisons emerged from these remarkably constructed layerings of the distant past and more recent cultural memories. The last four productions, the three parts of Henry VI and Richard II, underlined the multicultural nation that "This England" has become by casting black actors in prominent roles: Geff Francis as Warwick, Rhashan Stone as Clarence, and most notably, David Oyelowo as King Henry. When the audience is presented with the murder of Clarence, a middle-aged black man assaulted by two young white thugs, images of recent racist attacks are difficult to ignore. Such interconnections between Shakespeare's histories and England at the beginning of the twenty-first century, were further explored during the spring of 2001 in a parallel series of new plays, commissioned by the RSC, that took up pressing contemporary historical issues (Biyi Bandele's Brixton Stories, for example, chronicled two generations of black immigrants in south London). Through these and other strategies-Stephen Pimlott's modern-dress production of Richard II, which Barker so evocatively describes, comes to mind-the RSC provoked audiences to consider the ongoing interactions between the past and present. My own positioning as an audience member leads me to process the productions' staging of civil conflict in late medieval and early modern England through the now vast repertoire within twentieth-century literature and culture of representations of war and its consequences. It is in these interrelations among the texts of Shakespeare's histories, the embodied performances by the RSC actors and cultural memories of the recent past, that I would situate my responses. Because the character so clearly underscores my differences with Barker's reactions, I will focus my comments on Hotspur, played by Adam Levy.

  3. No one who saw both Stephen Pimlott's Richard II and David Attenborough's Henry IV, Part One could fail to notice Levy's quite radically divergent portrayals of Hotspur in the two plays. In Pimlott's modern-dress production Hotspur was depicted as a youthful, but decidedly sinister figure. Dressed in SAS-style black combat fatigues, with a military stance that, even at ease, set up a distinct contrast to the lounging, suited-and-jacketed courtiers, Hotspur came in the final acts of the play to represent the raw violence behind the slick, populist appeal of Bolingbroke and his faction. Nowhere was this configuration more apparent than in Pimlott's staging of the deaths of Richard's supporters, Bushy and Green. While traditionally the two men are led off stage to be executed, their deaths hidden from the audience, the RSC production not only showed the deaths on centre stage, but also did so in a way that connected them to familiar cultural and media images. In an unexpected and startling moment of theatre, Hotspur shot Bushy in the back. And yet, as shocking as the scene was, the young man's act was not made to appear cowardly; rather, it was motivated by Bushy's anger, menace, and potential violence towards Bolingbroke and Northumberland. Pimlott's staging located the death within the gestural conventions of a vast number of 'action' films and television programmes, replaying conventionalized scenes in which the vigilant awareness and lightening reflexes of a heroic soldier, secret agent or police officer saves the life of his (occasionally her) comrade. At the same time that audience members reached into their cultural memories to grasp and make meaning of the first execution, Pimlott set up another unsettlingly familiar tableau: in the second execution Northumberland took the gun from his son's hand and held it against the head of the kneeling Green. At the centre stage of the (now agonizingly) small Pit Theatre, the group reproduced Eddie Adams' well-known Vietnam war photograph of the Saigon police chief's execution of a Vietcong suspect. A particular power of the photograph, and one which made it an especially poignant emblem of the war, was its depiction of the intimacy of death: the fingers on the trigger only inches from the man's head; the recoil of human flesh and bone against the force of the bullet. In challenging the audience to react to Richard II through an image drawn from a late twentieth-century civil war, Pimlott's production aroused associations which retrieved and defamiliarized some of the numerous contemporary representations of violence, conflict and death that have so saturated the media in recent decades that one's response to them is often desensitized.

  4. This is the context in which I would situate the very different Hotspur in Henry IV, Part One. Set on a dark stage, Attenborough's production elegiacally evoked the late medieval period in what Barker describes as "a liberal humanist version of subjectivity," reinforced by actors who used "a naturalistic, interiorized performance style" (6). In particular, she comments that Levy's portrayal of Hotspur here seemed a weaker, less dramatically effective character in comparison with the earlier play. As she writes: "His eager Hotspur in Henry IV, Part One was a more human figure, his obsession with honour treated with tenderness instead of derision. Yet his humanity finally worked against him. While speakers endlessly trumpeted his larger-than-life virtues and vices, Levy's Hotspur remained resolutely small-scale: a gung-ho captain of school sports rather than a dazzling military hero, a callow youth rather than a catastrophically impulsive aristocrat" (6-7). Part of Barker's reaction can be located within tensions emerging from the play's text: in collapsing a generation and making Hotspur, who historically was a contemporary of King Henry IV, the same age as Prince Hal, Shakespeare created a character whose military exploits and charismatic ability to lead a rebellion are distinctly at odds with his youth. Even so, Barker sees decided inadequacies in the performance of this crucial figure. What are the implications of the differences in Levy's depiction of Hotspur in the two plays? What other possible readings does Levy's performance open up?

  5. My own responses took shape around the unusual combination of confidence and vulnerability that Levy brought to his performance. The introduction of moments of unguarded neediness seemed to move the character away from traditional (historicized) interpretations of a late medieval humoural body governed by choler, which is doomed when opposed to the more self-fashioned identity of Prince Hal, and towards a frankly modernizing reading of Hotspur as a traumatized soldier. Such an interpretation of the character perhaps takes its cue from the anachronisms in Shakespeare's text that occur in Hotspur's description of his encounter with the court fop at the end of the battle of Holmedon. In an extended and intense account (I.iii.29-69), Hotspur tells King Henry and the court how he was confronted by "a certain lord, neat and trimly dressed,/Fresh as a bridegroom," (I.iii.33-34) who demanded the Scottish prisoners in King Henry's name. The courtier's disdain for the carnage of battle takes its most direct form in his denunciation of "villainous saltpetre" (I.iii.60) and "vile guns" (I.iii.63), sentiments which speak more strongly to Elizabethan anxieties about new technologies of war than to the conditions of a late medieval battle (while the early fifteenth century possessed rudimentary cannon or 'siege engines,' the battle of Homeldon was won by the superiority of the English archers and the terrain they held). Earlier the audience had heard Westmoreland call the English victory at Holmedon "a conquest for a prince to boast of" (I.i.77), but Hotspur gives little sense of celebration or even relief at the end of the battle. Instead, he speaks of pain, exhaustion, faintness, the haunting smells of blood and death, and the grisly aftermath of war. Especially striking in this context is his description of his own reaction to the courtier's request:

    I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
    To be so pestered with a popingay
    Out of my grief and my impatience
    Answered neglectingly, I know not what-- (I.iii.49-52)

    Here Shakespeare's text presciently reproduces what has become recognized as a structure of trauma, an articulation of fragments of pain which cannot bring crucial moments into consciousness: 'It hurt. . . . I can't remember'. When situated in this way, together with Levy's both halting and impassioned delivery of the lines, the familiar 'personality substance' of Hotspur-irritability, anger, poor judgment, agitation and outbursts-can be relocated in the reactions of the traumatized soldier. Where Barker saw a "callow youth" and a "resolutely small scale" performance by Levy, I saw very different figure: caught between the immediate violence of battle and the institutionalized force of a sovereign asserting his strength, this Hotspur became what Mark Seltzer has, in another context, called "the subject in a state of shock who appears, at the same time, as the subject shot through with the social" (16).

  6. Other scenes supported such a reading of Levy's performance. In particular, Attenborough's staging of the Warkworth castle scene (II.iii) omitted much of the comic, but confusing exchanges between Hotspur and Lady Percy, and went directly to the emotional heart of the leavetaking. When Hotspur says to his wife, "I must leave within two hours" (II.iii.33) at the beginning of the scene, as in Shakespeare's text, it cannot fail to have the preemptory ring of an authoritative man. In Attenborough's rewriting, the line was shifted to the very end of the scene; spoken by Levy from the back of the stage, in a lowered voice, it became achingly tender and vulnerable. Following on the court scene where the audience witnessed Hotspur's revealing narrative of Holmedon, his subsequent humiliation by King Henry, his uncontrolled angry outbursts to his father and uncle, it was as if one watched the eager young soldier from Richard II marked by four years of political intrigue in the English court and incessant border warfare with the Scots.

  7. It is important, however, to note that my particular responses are located in a specific mental storehouse of intertexts that may not be shared by other audience members. It is difficult for me, to take one further example, to listen to Lady Percy's description of her husband's disturbed sleep ("beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow/. . .And in thy face strange motions have appeared,/ Such as we see when men restrain their breath" II.iii.55-58) without hearing echoes of the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon's moving description of the "sweating suffocation of nightmare" in shell shock (141). This is clearly an association that cannot be assumed to be widely available. And yet, there are a vast number of other well-known cultural texts that carry similar affiliations: one thinks, for instance, of the returned soldier, played by the immensely popular Tom Cruise, in the film Born on the 4th of July, of the First World War novel Regeneration by the Booker Prize winning writer Pat Barker, or of the psychologically damaged Canadian army nurse Hana (an intriguing shift of gender) in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. That the two novels have also been made into films broadens their popular accessibility. In a different but related way, audience members who later saw Edward Hall's production of Henry V, with its bleak, industrial set and its strangely spectral mixture of late medieval and modern design (King Henry was dressed in contemporary battle fatigues, but carried a sword), might make retrospective interconnections between the two plays. In all of this, Levy's performance as Hotspur reworked a character, who is often seen only as a tragically impulsive figure, into a complex young man marked both by the historical situation of late medieval England and by the cultural memories of the audience's contemporary world.

  8. Commenting on her own preferences, Roberta Barker writes, "Since comparisons often tell us more about our own perspectives as spectators than about the merits of productions per se, it is important that reviewers recognize their dialogical involvement in the production of performance meaning" (10). There can be no doubt that an awareness of an individual's internal dialogue with a play is crucial to critical reflection on the production of meaning in theatre performance. One obvious question that arises from my own comments on Richard II, Henry IV, Part One and Adam Levy's performance is the extent to which a desire to impose a unifying story onto a character motivates the reading I produce and forecloses other readings. And yet, I would also suggest that it is equally important to recognize the more collective, transindividual cultural discourses in and through which an audience member will react to the words, images and movement of bodies on the stage. Directors and actors draw on social texts and cultural memories that circulate widely within a society to construct new configurations of meaning from the words of a play. By juxtaposing images of the distant and recent past, 'This England: The Histories' compelled audiences to consider civil war, nation and nationalities, violence, masculinity, and race through the layering of Shakespeare's texts onto other discursive texts, a challenge which asks those watching the plays to think through a wide range of cultural memories, including recent and popular media forms.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)