The Wars of the Roses: An Actor’s Perspective…

2 days, 8 plays, 13 characters. I wouldn’t say I got involved in this project on a whim but it certainly didn’t dawn on me what a colossal undertaking this was. With little less than 2 months to go, I’d say it’s dawning on me.

I remember at Christmas finding in Oxfam an actor’s autobiography of his experience performing The Wars of the Roses at the RSC. While I still fully intend to read this one-day, it wont be until this project is but a memory. Better to have my own experience of trying to tackle this epic task, than compare it to a production that differs in everyway. We have set out to do in 6 months what they prepared in 3 years, with half the cast, a tenth the budget, and zero set.

When faced with performing for 12 hours across 2 days there are a number of considerations. Firstly, as with any play, sustaining the audience’s attention. When one tries to consider the amount of ideas that go into the preparation of one show, this is magnified 8 fold for us. As an actor my responsibility is therefore to make each role as unique as possible. This is perhaps the part of the project I’m most excited for. Within the space of 5 minutes I can rocket from playing a bawdy alcoholic, the keeper of a jail, a ghost or even the brother of a king (to name but a few). This gives the opportunity to flesh these characters so each one is distinct and holds their own in the evolving story.

Another problem lies in the stamina required to perform for this long. So far the longest performance I’ve partaken in has ran at three hours. The combination of what it required physically and mentally left me shattered. Although my current body type suits the image of a current pub goer (which nicely suits Bardolph) it doesn’t lend itself to the stamina required for the 12 hours of stage time. My current plan to deal with this is a gym regime, with the actors playing Henry the 5th and Hotspur beating me into shape. We shall see how long this lasts.

It’s a real pleasure to take part in a piece of theatre so historically immersive. Every facet of the performance is designed to be an accurate depiction of medieval living. This has involved training in a number of disciplines id previously not dabbled in.

Appealing to my inner child is the opportunity to play with swords and fight sequences. As the character I get to face off against a younger Richard the 3rd. although slightly disappointed I have to lose this fight, It does mean I get to act having my throat slit…which is perhaps more fun. However there is perhaps a little more at stake in these sequences than the sword fights of my childhood. Although the blades are blunted, they are still a hefty amount of metal being swung with intent. Any routine needs to be choreographed with the precision of a dance, and then the acting on top of this comes later. Performing alongside our Richard the 3rd is particularly enjoyable. A hunchback with a bum leg who by all logic should be useless as a warrior, but the scripts require him to be a real terror on the battlefield, and so he is. Defending yourself against so “rudely stamped” a man proves terrifying (not to mention the amount he grunts and spits).

I also had the chance to perform as York in our performance at the Stratford Dell. His fate proved particularly gruesome. After being informed of the death of his youngest son, he is stabbed in the spine and then again in the heart. Whilst performing this sequence it started raining. I’m fully taking credit for making that happen.

More challenging than this is the dancing workshops. As an actor gifted with two left feet, I proved capable of embarrassing myself on even the simplest step. Fortunately dance in the middle ages consisted of pretty simple steps. Most of which involve walking in lines in varying patterns. The skill comes in making it look graceful (sigh). These patterns include: the snail (a personal favourite), the weave, and the washer woman’s brawl. (I wont attempt to describe these, you can just come see the show).

Although it’s not all swaying and stepping.. My personal favourite dance is the jig to end Henry 4th in which we act out a bawdy tale of a knight spying a Bonnie Lass. I’d hate to spoil anything but it climaxes with him pulling out his “nut brown sword”.

With 3 out of the 8 plays in the bag, there is a considerable amount of work still to go, and no doubt considerably more problems to face. Which time allowing I will keep y’all posted on.

This project is no small feat and it was never going to be, but that excites me most of all…and if we find out we’ve bitten off more than we can chew? The journey makes it more than worth it.

Michael Smith is a Drama student at The University of Exeter and is playing a variety of roles in The Wars of the Roses including Bardolph, Somerset and Rivers.


Michael performing as Bardolph in 1 Henry IV at the University of Exeter Piazza, June 2012

(Photography by Melissa Barrett)


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