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The Rebellion triumphs! An interview with a Shakespeare Nation performer

Helen Wells who acted in the RSC’s latest production of Henry VI: Rebellion chats about her experience and what it is like to tread the boards with professional actors. 


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Our Shakespeare Nation participants have come home triumphant from the rebellion on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) stage in Stratford-upon-Avon. Helen Wells who acted in the RSC’s latest production of Henry VI: Rebellion chats about her experience and what it is like to tread the boards with professional actors. 

Can you start by introducing yourself – name, your role in Henry VI: Rebellion, and how your love of acting and theatre began? 

I’m playing Simpcox’s Wife in Henry VI: Rebellion. I call her Martha Simpcox to bring her to life inside myself as an independent human being! In the script, she’s just called wife. About five years ago, I got involved in a community project on the theme of revolution and we wrote a sort of dada piece and performed it in an installation in an exhibition, and I thought – I like this! It was a revelation to find I liked performing and had something to say. So, I have just kept going, writing, performing in exhibitions and installations, in galleries, outdoors and on stage, always as exaggerated versions of myself, writing from my own experience until this year and this project, where for the first time I have a role to bring myself to.

Can you tell us more about the plot of Henry VI: Rebellion? 

Rebellion is an intense play about power, inequality, class and the lack of awareness the privileged have for those living ordinary lives. It explores uncertainty and unrest, the rise of populism and the way we can be swayed by the latest argument we have heard. I have come to see it as so pertinent to today, full of fake news and the lack of awareness of those in power, echoes of the violence and war and fights for power we are experiencing now. At the heart of the play, Henry VI is a peaceful, spiritual man who hates conflict, in marked contrast to his warrior hero father, Henry V. This very different style creates a power vacuum that everyone else wrestles to fill in their different ways. I love the Simpcox: canny, desperate, trying to make their lives better, nothing to lose. The play is full of strong women, and I love the echoes of each character across the play. At one point, Mrs Simpcox cradles Simpcox’s doublet as she tells the King what she thinks, and later Queen Margaret cradles Suffolk’s head as she connects to her determination to keep going and not collapse in grief. At that moment, the queen and the common woman are the same.

What has the process of this project been like? (rehearsals, travel, relationships) 

We have been meeting twice a week for rehearsals since November, and it has been great to have time to really immerse in the medieval time frame, the history, the story, and the characters and build our relationships as a group. Chloe France, our director, has kept us focused, engaged and encouraged as we have worked together. We have also had input from Aaron, the Royal Shakespeare Company Associate Director, on blocking and atmosphere, text and the thinking of the professional cast and director, and Kathleen on voice and projection and articulation. We have imagined our stories together. Simpcox and I have worked out how we met, and married and then Simpcox gambled away our land, and we now face destitution. So we have come up with a plan to get a purse, to feed ourselves and the whole village. It’s a desperate plan. We are risking everything. Over the rehearsals, we have developed our relationship, exchanging glances and finding new details. We also had videos from the rehearsal room in London to see the cast and their work. One of the best videos for me was being shown the set plans, the different levels, and the planned use of video projection and live video capture. I think I realised what a high-class professional production I had the privilege to be part of. It was very touching and moving. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

What is it like to perform alongside a professional cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre?  

In March, we went to Stratford-upon-Avon for tech rehearsals and costume, met all the other community groups and had a chance to stand on the stage and rehearse with the professional cast. It was so valuable to feel the space we will be performing in, feel the fear and excitement, feel the warm welcome and be able to picture the space as we returned to rehearsal in Norwich. With the three tiers of seats, we have to project our voices and emotions to tell this story.

And now we are here! Costume fitting, learning where to stand backstage, finding our way to the dressing rooms, the green room. Getting back on stage and finding it smaller this time, more familiar, more ours, as though we can belong here for a week and give our all.

Now it’s our first performance – into costume and there’s dirt spray, and dark mud to spray on to complete our common people looks. It’s so brilliant in costume – the characters spring to life. We are called and placed at every moment, so we are always at the right place at the right time. And we are on!

The first performance is the understudy performance for the whole cast. In this performance, I am the Mayor’s skivvy, and it is such fun to get myself on stage. Just like my character, I excitedly look out at what’s going on with the King and all these lords and ladies in their finery. And then to see the tragedy unfold and the all too familiar whipping of the man I thought had got a miracle.

Then we go to a party for the understudies, where the RSC is thanks them for all their hard work and dedication, some of them covering several roles.

Then back into costume, and we are on again, this time with the main cast, and now I’m Martha Simpcox and getting my chance to stand out there and be that brave desperate woman. The professional actors are so engaging and compelling. The language and delivery are rich and meaningful, the words in the script, which I have read repeatedly suddenly jump into life and vivid form. Actors who nod in an ordinary and friendly way as we pass in a corridor become possessed by these larger than life characters telling us this story of our relationship to power. I feel full of admiration for them.

The rebellion scene comes at the end of the play, and there we all are, full of blood lust on the barricade, many of our fellow rebels already dead. We howl for vengeance. It’s compelling as we are a large mob, shouting, responding, and hearing compelling reasons on both sides- who to follow? Which way will lead to the better life we all want? There’s smoke and flares and noise and clamour. And then it’s over, and we take a bow. Wow! And I get notes and three more performances to bring detail and life and do it even better!

What have you gained from this experience? 

I have learned and gained so much from this experience – A new interest in Shakespeare and a new appreciation of the power and subtlety of his writing and how it transcends time. I’ll definitely be going to more of his plays now that I can see myself and my human experience reflected there upon the page and stage.

The deepest admiration for the professional actors, seeing their hard work and dedication. I have learnt how to bring myself and my experience to a character, to listen, and keep it alive and fresh each time as though I’ve never heard those words before. To be constantly pushing at the edges of my performance, that I can be more than I thought.

I’ve gained the experience of being part of a team, relying on each other, supporting each other, learning together, and making friendships and connections that will last. I’ve gained experience of working with a director- Chloe France- and both experiencing and observing that process, her style and skill and patience and how she gets the best out of us. I am always watching how others do it, soaking up the learning, and getting hints on how I can incorporate my learning into my own practice.

I’ve had fun! I’ve had a chance in a lifetime! I am 72 and doing all these things for the first time. It’s wonderful and moving and heartfelt. I can’t thank everyone enough for giving me this chance.

Tomorrow in the final matinee performance my family and friends will come to see it. My granddaughter will see me on the stage. I will share my pleasure with them, and they will share the wonder and excitement of this story. What could be better than that?!

Finally, what’s your favourite Shakespeare quote? 

My favourite Shakespeare quote in this play comes from Queen Margaret. It’s a call to action, a call to change, a call to get on with it!

“Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind, And makes it fearful and degenerate; Think therefore on revenge and cease to weep.”