This November, familiar Shakespearean themes of chivalry, justice, and honor will play out on the Theatre Erindale stage in its production of Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2. The Medium sat down with director James Wallis, who has directed many notable works by William Shakespeare in the past, to discuss his background in theatre, why he chose Henry IV to tackle next, and the modernization of historical pieces.
Wallis and his wife co-founded their own theatre company in 2010 called Shakespeare BASH’d with the intentions of investigating Shakespeare’s plays in unique ways and interpreting them for an immersive audience experience. They are based in Toronto and stage their productions in local bars. “We wanted a really good company spirit, so we created an ensemble with every one of our plays we produced, in order to bring great people on to do the work for the sheer joy of it. On our first date, I ended up saying to [my wife] Julia, ‘well, we’ve both loved Shakespeare for our entire lives. You should play Katerina and I should play Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew.’ She thought that was a really good line for a first date. And funnily enough, I said I’ve always wanted to do it in a bar—I just thought the farce would really work out that way. It’s a social place to go, and we wanted to bring Shakespeare into a place that’s not so much sitting back in the dark and sort of judging it. More so, sitting forward and experiencing it in a much different way than you usually do. Our goal is always just to be open and determined to figure out these plays in any which way that we have to.”
The cast of Henry IV consists of the Theatre and Drama Studies third-year class, which was a factor for Wallis to consider when deciding which play to choose. “I wanted everyone to have a lot to do because there’s seventeen of them in the class. So, doing both plays allowed for everyone to have a good chunk as an actor to cling to and work on. I think they’re wonderful plays mostly because they’re so different yet so connected by the fact that they may or may not be a sequel. I also chose it because I thought that the plays politically could speak to a younger generation, and I knew an energetic young group of actors could bring a lot of fun to it. They’re great stories about what we expect of ourselves and what people expect of us. I think the way that I view the work is so based upon technique and what we do with the words we have—I relish the opportunity to teach and open people’s minds.”
When asked if there was anything he pulled from previous productions that have informed his direction of this one, Wallis replied, “Most definitely. Every play by Shakespeare is written in a certain form. He wrote to the confines of his own theatre, so you’re looking at different kinds of opportunities to portray different kinds of characters, but they’re all familiar. Hal is the prodigal son and Falstaff is the sort of vice-like character that comes from medieval drama. You can find these characters in many places, like Hal resembles that Romeo, Hamlet spirit of a man of action. The biggest thing that I always bring to every Shakespeare play is a reliance on the words telling the story. What is being said and done in the play, and extrapolate that to create something.”
Theatre critics have widely debated whether or not great works from our past should be adjusted for a modern-day audience. Wallis believes that modernization is one of those things that will come organically with concept or sheer necessity. The themes weaved throughout Henry IV will relate to viewers regardless of time period, so Wallis leaves character representation largely to the actors’ prerogative. “My goal is sheer comfort and desire, so if they end up wearing a suit jacket or an Elizabethan shirt, that’s fine.” Smiling, he adds, “of course, there are no cell phones—a couple people are trying to do high-fives and I keep cutting the high-fives—nothing outlandishly pop culture.”
“For me, we can experience these plays as documents of the oratory world and pieces of verse drama. It’s getting across the idea that Shakespeare is important to the theatre and that it can be done in simple but expressive ways. That comes with a lot of reminders that the verse is not sacrosanct—it can be changed, but Shakespeare was such a good writer that you might as well listen to him at first and see what happens. So it’s constantly reminding them to trust themselves, Shakespeare, and hopefully me.”
Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 will run at Deerfield Hall Studio Theatre from November 8-18.