In the run up to an evening’s performance it’s traditional for thesps to wish each other luck by saying “break a leg”. No one wants this to happen for real, but in any production in which there’s fighting, there’ll be a person dedicated to making sure it looks like it does. Terry King is one of the best in the business at being that person, and it’s he who’s been charged with choreographing the fighting in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Henry IV at the Barbican. With a career spanning over 30 years, King has done everything from ballet to Disney to soap operas. There isn’t an actor worth his salt who he hasn’t helped beat-up.
I visited him during rehearsals for Henry IV. Hotspur (Trevor White) and Hal (Alex Hassell) are locked in a battle to the death. I say battle, it’s more like a dance. Sword and shield clank and clang as they twirl across the stage, going through the motions of the fight that constitutes the dramatic apex of the play. Alex finally lands the fatal blow and Trevor howls in agony before breaking character. “How was that?”. “Good” says Alex.
“I liked that bit when you fell over.”
“Yeah that was good.”
“Make swipes slightly slower for the double hit,” suggests King.
They go again.
Violence has been a crucial part of the theatrical experience for millennia. The ancient Greeks kept the bloodiest acts off stage but the Romans brought them into full view, as did the Jacobeans (actors concealed bladders full of sheep blood that they would explode at opportune moments). Broadly speaking, theatre combat, like theatre itself, is much as it ever was. Just as there’s something unimprovable about a group of actors performing in front of a live audience, it’s hard to top the concealed hand clap and the blood capsule (though these days coloured corn syrup is preferred to sheep blood).
So, what are the tricks that can be relied upon to make the audience wince? There’s fake blood of course, deployed in a number of ingenious ways. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s vast arsenal of stage weaponry includes a number of hollow-hilted daggers that can be filled with red liquid and activated when a character stabs another. Strategically placed bubble-wrap works well for neck-breaks while brittle sticks strapped beneath outerwear make an alarmingly bone-like crack when snapped in half.
On the whole, though, successful stage violence is less a consequence of technical wizardry than good acting. You have to believe in the violent intent of the characters. That’s what makes it thrilling. Without believable violent intent, nifty tricks seem nothing more than a novelty. Hence the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rule that when it comes to stage gore, less is more. In other words, easy on the blood, heavy on the grunts (the idea is that if an audience believes in the characters and hears the right noises, their imagination can do most of the work).
Grunting lunging thrusting stabbing – it’s thirsty work. At the rehearsal, Alex and Trevor are wearing t-shirts. For the real thing they’ll be in full 16th century armour and under heat of the stage lights. Judging by their biceps, they’ve been putting in plenty of gym hours to make sure they’re up to the challenge. “When we first did it I couldn’t stand up afterwards,” says Alex.
Collapsing out of exhaustion is one of a long list of things that could go wrong on the night. Trevor tells me of the time when the blade of his sword broke off. Luckily it just skittered across the stage harmlessly, missing both cast or audience. If it had someone, who knows... one lawsuit could change stage fighting forever. King says that health and safety legislation hasn’t impacted on his work too much. But then he’s always been at pains to make his fights as safe as possible. “The first thing actors want to know when you start constructing a fight, is whether the person choreographing that fight cares. They think, ‘do they care whether I get hurt or not, or are they only interested in how fantastic it looks?’”
The key to stage combat, says King, is understanding that it isn’t about conflict but cooperation. “I’m a superannuated hippy. I believe that violence is the last resort of the incompetent, and I’ve had one fight in my life. But stage combat has nothing to do with violence and much more about to do with working together. A good fight has to find that vein of cooperation. Some people have to do it through eye contact, eyeball to eyeball, that metaphorical wink, where they’re saying to each other ‘are you ready?’ ‘yes’ ‘are you ready?’ ‘yes’, and that’s the kind of relationship we try to engender during rehearsals.”
It’s a hard skill to master because it’s the opposite of how actors normally work. “Usually actors strive to not be conscious of themselves, to not have a third eye, but for that moment, in the fight it’s not Hal and Hotspur. It’s Trevor and Alex.”
For more information about Henry IV Parts I & II, at the Barbican visit rsc.org.uk.
Great for breaking necks. Just strap it to the inside of a collar and squeeze at the crucial moment. The loud sound is bound to elicit a wince
Theatre and film directors have been using these since Shakespeare’s time. Just crunch down to simulate catastrophic internal wounds.
These daggers can be filled with blood and then emptied over an unsuspecting victim. A classic stage trick.
5 in 1 Blanks can be used in a variety of firearms and are made specifically for use in theatres and on film sets.
A stick strapped beneath clothing sounds uncannily like the snapping of human bones when broken in half. A crude but effective trick.