Guy Roberts: Into the Breech
Anyone lucky enough to catch Guy Roberts at Houston's Main Street Theater last year, knows of his chameleon-like properties. In the Tom Stoppard epic The Coast of Utopia trilogy he played Michael Bakunin, the spoiled, self-absorbed and frequently unintentionally hilarious revolutionary son of a prosperous Russian family to critical acclaim.
Then in Richard III he burst upon the stage in a perpetual half crouch, arms in crutches, legs in braces twisted underneath him, scuttling quickly about the room. Our critic D.L. Groover wrote "Roberts is not only good, he's phenomenal," and called the production which Roberts also directed a "punk-gothic, evocative take" for its cell phones and political ads used throughout.
Now Roberts is back, in another co-production between his Prague Shakespeare Company and Main Street, this time to direct Shakespeare's good king Henry V and to play the title role. But being Roberts, this won't be the shined up, completely heroic version of young Hal grown up as he strives to unite his kingdom. Unlike other productions, Robert has restored the parts Shakespeare wrote about Henry's betrayals of allies and cruelties to his enemies.
"One of the great things about the play now is that there is a secret play within the play where Henry engages in some really questionable behavior. He hangs one of his great friends for stealing from a church, shows no mercy. He threatens citizens by saying their fathers will be taken by their silver beards, their heads dashed to the walls, babies will be spitted on pikes, daughters will be raped. He orders the killing of French prisoners against the convention of law of warfare at the time when he thinks they are losing the battle of Agincourt," Roberts said in a recent interview in Houston.
Henry is still a hero, just not the cardboard cutout type.
Onstage throughout the performance, Japanese taiko drummers will be pounding away. "Henry V is such a martial play. It's a hard play, has a hard sound. So I would hear these drums," Roberts says. He's making a statement with the technology employed: "Roman short swords mixed with machine guns, warriors from all periods of time. We're hoping in that the production in some way represents war throughout the ages."
But make no mistake, he cautions, Henry V is not an anti-war play. "Shakespeare does honor the great determination of resolve of common men and women in this play. It's actually a very balanced deep consideration of nations at war and the effect it has on common people," Roberts says.
"There is a very important character in the play. Michael Williams is a common foot soldier Henry encounters the night before the battle. Williams warns Henry 'But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make ... Now if these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it.' Our production seeks to juxtapose both the horror and the glory of war."
For most of the year, Roberts, a graduate of Klein High School in Houston, works as artistic director of the Prague Shakespeare Company (previously the Prague Shakespeare Festival; it was just renamed) in the Czech Republic. He started out on a conventional enough path for an actor (he gave up painting as a career at 15 upon seeing Sir Laurence Olivier's Hamlet): he formed a Shakespeare club at his high school (they'd get together at 7:30 in the morning to read sonnets to each other), graduated from Boston University, moved to New York where he founded the Mermaid Theatre Company, a classical theater troupe, and then ended up in Austin as the artistic director of the Austin Shakespeare Festival.
Given a grant by the city of Austin to direct Macbeth with a Czech company, Roberts ended up in Prague and fell in love with the city and its people. "I realized how much Czechs love Shakespeare. There's a great tradition of English language Shakespeare in Prague. In 1596, 1603 and 1619 British actors from London toured through Prague when the theaters in London were closed by plague."
He saw an opportunity, relocated to Prague and it paid off. Now just coming off its fifth season, the Prague Shakespeare Company has finally got a home stage and is planning to do some English-language works other than just Shakespeare.
During this same time, Roberts, who was still returning stateside periodically to act, took the chance to introduce himself to Rebecca Greene Udden, artistic director at Main Street, and they decided to work together when the opportunity presented itself. She directed him in The Coast of Utopia and she was one of the actors he directed in Richard III. They took the co-production of Richard III to Prague several weeks after closing in Houston and in the next year, they are talking about starting a production in Prague and then coming to Houston. "It's been great for us and I hope it continues for years to come," Udden says.
"I think there's a couple of things that Guy is very good at," Udden says. "He makes what's happening very clear to the audience. And he's just really good at making things exciting and fresh."
Roberts acknowledged that some people have been burned by badly performed Shakespeare and so what he tries to do is make it clear and interesting. "The best moment for me is when we have a young student come up after a show and say 'Thank you for translating Shakespeare into modern English. I finally understood it.' And we never do that. We never change the words."
Roberts last played Henry V about 12 years ago. "It was a much more youthful innocent king, sort of thrust into a situation and now I'm much more identifying with the side of Henry who was a battle-tested leader at the age of 16 at the battle of Shrewsbury," he says. "To me the play is actually from Henry's perspective about isolation. In his only speech to the audience, he talks about the great isolation and burden of being king how you are never able to please everyone, how you can never sleep at night. He's trying to do what had never been done before, to unite the kingdom.
"My main concern as director is to try to figure out what Shakespeare was really getting at and then get out of the way," Roberts says. The language used in this production will be rougher, more like what Shakespeare's audiences would have heard in their day, he says, then recites the "Once more into the breech dear friends" speech in what sounds like an Appalachian snarl. "We're trying to get some of the spirit of that rough-and-ready back into the play. I love my grandmother, but this is not my grandmother's Shakespeare," he says, laughing.
"Henry V is a great honor play but it's also about mud," Roberts says, adding that actually, it's about mud and technology at the Battle of Agincourt. "It was raining the night before and the French were in heavy armor. And when the French cavalry charged, they got stuck in the mud. And also because the English had the newest technology, they had the English longbow which had a much with greater range than the crossbow and could pierce armor. So when the French got stuck in the mud, the English longbow men basically picked them off like flies."
For seven years now, Roberts also has worked training business leaders and corporate executives from around the world using Henry V and other Shakespeare history plays.
"The same challenges that Henry goes through are not unknown to business leaders today," he says. "How do you unite your forces around a common cause, how do you deal with traitors, what do you do when vastly outnumbered and facing seemingly insurmountable odds."
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