The Tisbury Amphitheatre sits nestled in the woods just off State Road, by the Lake Tashmoo overlook. It’s well hidden, unless you know where to look. Follow a narrow path into the woods and soon you will encounter a clearing. At the foot of the hill, 11 actors in simple costumes stand ready to begin their production of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV. The dirt stage is bare, save for a picnic table and a few wooden crates. There are not nearly enough actors to play all the roles in the show. It is a simple production, and that’s just how director Scott Barrow wants it.
The play begins with what Mr. Barrow called a “dumb show” — an intentionally oversimplified prologue to explain the political dynamics at work in Henry IV. The cast quickly reenacts King Henry IV’s overthrow of his predecessor, Richard II. Some of the primary characters identify themselves and their alliances, helping the audience to understand the story that is about to take place.
“The dumb show is an acknowledgement that Shakespeare’s audiences knew something about the politics of the time that our audience doesn’t,” Mr. Barrow said.
Opening the show with a “dumb show” is just one of the many ways that Mr. Barrow is working to simplify the production. A self-professed “Shakespeare purist,” Mr. Barrow said that he has taken the chance to do Henry IV in the amphitheatre to focus more on telling the story than creating the illusion of being in 15th century England. He also streamlined many of the roles to make the play more manageable for the small cast and to make the play easier to understand for the audience.
“We needed all hands on deck to tell the story,” he said.
But Mr. Barrow didn’t have much of a choice when it came to venue. The 180-year-old Vineyard Playhouse, located in Vineyard Haven, is currently being renovated and is still not ready for use. Consequently, Mr. Barrow had to find a way to tell the story without the aid of detailed sets and complex props.
“Because we’re doing it outside, I had to drop any sense of trying to tell the play realistically,” he said. “Rather than present the precise script, I’m much more about telling the story that Shakespeare intended.”
Mac Young, who plays the role of Hotspur, said that he appreciates Mr. Barrow’s effort to do the show as simply as possible. He likened the outdoor Tisbury Amphitheatre to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, at which stories such as Henry IV were told with little more than a wooden stage and a troupe of talented actors.
In explaining his approach to the production, Mr. Barrow referenced the introduction of Shakespeare’s Henry V. In that play, Shakespeare asks that the audience see beyond the basic stage setting to the story being told — “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughtsâ¨ . . . for ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.” “We’re in this big outdoor space, we’ve got as few people as possible — realistically, we can’t do it,” Mr. Young said. “[Mr. Barrow’s] focus isn’t to pretend, but to show the audience that we are what we are; a bunch of actors trying to tell the story.”
Mr. Young said that he enjoys Henry IV’s tasteful blend of history and comedy, making the show one of his favorites. He said that playing the hotheaded and boisterous Harry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, challenged his abilities as an actor by forcing him to assume a role whose temperament was completely opposite his own. Whereas Hotspur is impatient and prone to outbursts, Mr. Young said that he is usually calm and even-tempered. He said his biggest obstacle in learning to play the character was trying to rationalize Hotspur’s outbursts.
“I don’t talk and think that fast or get that angry in real life,” Mr. Young said. “Instead of figuring out why [Hotspur is] reacting like he is, I just make myself go with it. You just have to trust this cliff you’re about to jump off.”
Although Hotspur used to be one of the more popular roles in Henry IV, Mr. Young said that is not the case anymore. Whereas Shakespeare’s audiences preferred the story of Hotspur, the fiery rebel, modern audiences have begun to prefer the coming-of-age story of Prince Hal, King Henry’s renegade son. Prince Hal initially spends most of his time carousing in taverns with a crew of vagabonds, but he eventually cleans up his act and helps lead his father’s troops at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Mr. Young said that he, too, is fascinated by the relationship between King Henry and his son.
“[Prince Hal] is this troubled youth that would ultimately develop the political savvy to leave these [undesirables] behind,” he said. “Eventually, you recognize that point in your life where you have to give up the taverns of Eastcheap to go be the king of England.”
Aside from his role as Hotspur, Mr. Young also had the onstage duty of being the cast’s fight captain. He helped Mr. Barrow to choreograph Henry IV’s fight scenes and was responsible for ensuring the safety of the other actors. Mr. Young said that the key to a safe and engaging fight is ensuring that the actors are on the same page so that they can attack knowing for certain that the other actor will be able to defend successfully.
“It needs to be safe and controlled but, at the same time, it needs to tell the story of violence and danger,” he said.
Performances for Henry IV begin at 5 p.m. every Wednesday through Saturday through August 17. For tickets and information, visit vineyardplayhouse.org.