The Folger Spotlight

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Meeting the Cast of Henry V: Richard Sheridan Willis

King Henry (Zach Appelman, top) leads his army into battle in Henry V. Photo by Teresa Wood.
King Henry (Zach Appelman, top) leads his army into battle in Henry V. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Shakespeare’s final history play Henry V has been playing at the Folger Theatre and, directed by Robert Richmond, has been receiving raves from audiences and critics alike. If you haven’t heard, we have extended the show to run through March 10 — so get your tickets now. One unique aspect (of many) of this production is that we have a mighty cast of 13 actors playing 48 speaking parts — and we thought it would be fun to give you a little bit of insight into each cast member of Henry V. So we posed a few questions to each – and will be posting these informal interviews here on our Production Diary throughout the rest of our run. First up — Richard Sheridan Willis, who plays the pivotal role of the Chorus, as well as the Governor of Harfleur, Montjoy, and others. Richard has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, London, Canada, and throughout the U.S., but this marks his debut on our intimate Folger stage.

Richard Sheridan Willis stars as the Chorus in Henry V.  Photo by Scott Suchman.
Richard Sheridan Willis stars as the Chorus in Henry V. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Folger: Can you share with us what your experience has been like working at the Folger.

RSW: This is my first experience of working at the Folger.  I am very happy to be here and looking forward to returning again in the spring. “Graced” sounds a little polite.  I always aspire to being described as “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightening.” It’s a worthy aspiration, although many times I can act up a storm, but with no lightening – or enlightening –  I’m afraid.

Folger: What is your favorite Shakespeare play – and why?  

RSW: It’s like asking who my favorite lady is.  It’s the one I’m married to right now.  Henry V. Other mistresses though are Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Richard lll and Winter’s Tale.

Folger: What specifically draws you to Henry V? What is unique and special about this particular play?

RSW: Growing up in England, the battle of Agincourt was still taught as a great and mystical victory for the English.  So I have always been drawn to it.  I also grew up with with Olivier’s version and it was one of the reasons I became an actor.  I was at Rada with Kenneth Branagh, and the dramaturg on his film of Henry V was our old principal, Hugh Crutwell, but I also saw Ken do it at Stratford and in London.  I think the play’s uniqueness comes from its theatricality.  It explains that the theatre can’t hope to recreate the full drama of those times, but it keeps insisting that the audience use their imagination throughout the play.

O, for a muse of fire...Richard Sheridan Willis as Chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman.
O, for a muse of fire…Richard Sheridan Willis as Chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Folger: What is your favorite moment that takes place on stage in Henry V?

RSW: I don’t have one.  I’m lucky because as Chorus, I am on stage most of the time.  I love the whole thing…  “the full course of their glory.”

Folger: Shakespeare incorporated a fascinating device by writing a character to play the Chorus in Henry V. How do you see the relationship of your role as the Chorus to the rest of the characters who inhabit the stage?

RSW: Well, first of all…character…he doesn’t have one.  So unlike the other actors who play characters, I’m very much using my “self.” (Although we use a unique device which indicates who else I might be, but I like to leave that up to the audience’s imagination.) I’m speaking directly to the audience and taking them on a journey. I am also another member of the audience as I watch the majority of the play and the action from on stage.  That makes for an interesting dynamic between the other actors and the Chorus as I’m acknowledged and not hidden. On top of all that, I step into the action sometimes to play certain parts, but I never feel I’m doing this as but the Chorus. So I think that heightens the theatriclity of the evening.

I believe, by the end, the audience feel a special affinity with me because I’ve been a kind of medium between themselves and the action of the play.  I hope that’s the case anyway.

Interior of the Folger Theatre. View from the stage. Courtesy of Folger Theatre.
Interior of the Folger Theatre. View from the stage. Courtesy of Folger Theatre.

Folger: You have been in numerous productions of Shakespeare before, but this is your first time doing so here at the Folger. How is performing Shakespeare here different than in other venues?

RSW: First of all, the audiences here are extremely knowledgable. You don’t have to work as hard because many of them know the plays, love and understand the language already.

The Folger is also a unique and very special theatre.  It’s an Elizabethan auditorium built in the old inn style, and its intimacy is perfect for Shakespeare’s plays… for suiting the action to the word and the word to the action. I also beleive its precious Shakepearean treasures gives the auditorium an extra surge of almost spiritual energy that seeps up from the vauts, library and Great Hall.  I’ve come to accept that theatres have energies.  The RSC’s Swan in Stratford-Upon Avon is, I think, the best theatre in the UK for the same reason. The proportions of the Folger auditorium and the history within its walls, make it a consumate crown for the jewels of Shakespeare’s language.

We want to thank Richard for taking time to answer some of our questions. Make sure you catch him on stage — and follow his updates on Twitter @richactor!

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