Actors marathon of eight Shakespeare plays over four days

THE rare chance to see all eight of Shakespeare s history plays performed in sequence by the RSC has been drawing crowds to the Roundhouse this month. The company s artistic director Michael Boyd has already staged the cycle at Stratford s Courtyard Theat

THE rare chance to see all eight of Shakespeare's history plays performed in sequence by the RSC has been drawing crowds to the Roundhouse this month.

The company's artistic director Michael Boyd has already staged the cycle at Stratford's Courtyard Theatre earlier this year.

Now RSC set builders have recreated the more intimate Courtyard stage inside the former engine shed in Chalk Farm.

Audiences with a strong stomach for Shakespeare's bloody telling of English history can book to see the entire cycle over four days.

Thirty-four actors play 264 parts, wielding 120 weapons, including 30 guns and spilling litres of stage blood made from a mix of glucose and ice cream colouring.

Veteran Shakespeare actor Roger Watkins, who lives in Muswell Hill, plays Edmund in Henry VI Part I as well as the Earl of Salisbury and the Duke of Exeter.

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He says the marathon staging creates the feeling of an event for audiences watching the entire cycle from Richard II to Richard III.

"Having a single company of actors do all eight plays together is unique and I am not sure whether it will ever be repeated because of the logistics," he says.

"It is an immense undertaking but it's incredibly exciting to be part of.

"Some of the plays, like Henry V and Richard III, are often done separately. But giving audiences the chance to watch the whole thing in sequence creates a different animal.

"Because of the event, they see the sweep of English history, albeit filtered through Shakespeare.

"And they can make the connections between the plays and their themes and the way that every character has an impact on proceedings."

Watkins says that the sheer commitment of audiences attending the plays over four days creates a charged atmosphere.

"By the end, there is an acknowledgement for them and all the actors and technical staff - it's quite extraordinary."

As an actor, Watkins says it is the hanging around between scenes and dealing with the mechanism behind the production which is more difficult than the stage work itself.

"Getting on stage is quite a relief," he says.

"Playing lots of different parts is more difficult in theory than in practise.

"You have to do the hard graft, learn the parts and, once you have got that in your bloodstream, you have a body memory of playing the part - even if you haven't done it for a while.

"The tricky thing is that everyone in the company understudies each other's parts.

"You have to keep it in your memory bank without having ever played it. When you are required to go on, as I was in Henry VI playing the character who opens the whole play, it was a little freaky."

Watkins, who praises the RSC designers for creating such a "snug fit" for the set in the Roundhouse, says his favourite part is John of Gaunt in Richard II because it is the most challenging.

"There is a lot of pressure because he has one of the most iconic speeches in Shakespeare and it is the first play in the cycle. But it is a lovely part."

Some actors required to die on stage use colostomy bags filled with stage blood which they squeeze at the appropriate moment.

Watkins' goriest part is as the Earl of Salisbury in Henry VI parts I and II.

He is killed in battle and comes back from the dead covered in blood which he describes as "sweet tasting and a devil to get off the costumes".

Watkins' CV is littered with Shakespeare roles and, although he doesn't seek them out, he finds great satisfaction in appearing in good productions of the Bard's plays.

"Like thousands of others, I suffered at school by being bored and not understanding Shakespeare.

"The main thing for me, as an actor, is the craft of making the language work - so audiences are excited by what's going on on stage."

The Histories series runs until May 25.