In this final installment of Stacy Keach’s blog, he talks about working with Michael Kahn as a younger actor, and shares some favorite Washington theatre memories. – DL
And so we come to the end. I’ve talked about many things over the past eight weeks – Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, climbing the mountain of Falstaff and the other great Shakespeare roles, and, of course, my superstitious preshow rituals. But now I’d like to talk about a subject – a person – who has meant so much to my career: Michael Kahn.
When Michael Kahn first approached me about doing these plays, it was natural to think that we were getting the band back together one last time with Ed Gero, Ted van Griethuysen, and the whole bunch. And it has been a tremendous experience to share the stage with Ted as Justice Shallow, to trade scenes with Ed as King Henry, as well as working with younger actors such as the brilliant and very smart Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal.
But Michael is like me. He has plans sketched out for projects for years from now, as do I. Michael and I both share a passion for work, for being creative. I wouldn’t still be doing this – with a Charley Horse for the last week! – if I didn’t share his passion. His creative juices are still very much intact. Michael is one of a kind. I don’t know many other directors who can match him when it comes to Shakespeare, in this country or in England, actually. He’s at the top of the heap. He’s the best of the best. I met Michael at the Public Theater in New York, when it was the New York Shakespeare Festival. It was sometime in the 1960s.
We both started under Joe Papp. I think he was doing Measure for Measure. We were both kids. We had talked about working while he was at the Stratford Festival in Connecticut. I was in New York at the time, and I would go up and see his plays. I had friends in that company. But it wasn’t until Richard III that we worked together.
Richard III was one of those productions that you remember for the rest of your career. I hear that it’s been remembered in Washington as well. It certainly was a highlight of my career. Richard was a character that I had always wanted to play. I always felt a certain kinship with him, having been born with a cleft lip myself. I always related to this character who had such a twisted self-image. I loved him. I still do love him. Michael’s production was stunning. The thing I remember best was the opening soliloquy –
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York”
– Michael’s idea was for me to come down speaking this, out of the “gods,” onto the stage at the Folger. Ooh, it was spectacular.
I remember Ted van Griethuysen played Buckingham. Ed Gero was Clarence. And Floyd King played King Edward. The set was metallic with many vertical platforms. The Folger is a very small stage, and we constantly had to march up and down. Thank God I did it when I did it. I couldn’t do it now, that’s for sure.
The trick for me with Richard lay in figuring out his body – in many ways his deformity is still a mystery. I remember I got letters for years from some society, all these people saying Richard was not the way Shakespeare wrote him. They said he was handsome, that he didn’t murder the princes in the tower … They just discovered his body this past year. Under some parking lot, in England. The skeleton was twisted into an S-shape. Shakespeare was right. He was deformed.
I remember, Michael and I approached the character treating Shakespeare’s text at face value. We wanted to indicate that the character was deformed, and show audiences how it had affected him. I wore this large metal brace on my right leg. It was Richard’s crutch throughout the show. When he became king, climbing up the throne, he abandoned it. Later, when the news of Richmond’s threat came, his leg collapsed. He needed the brace.
In the final Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard was disarmed and he was forced to take off his brace and use it as a weapon. That really worked. We were able to tell a whole other story in the theatre about Richard’s dependency. I have another story about Shakespeare’s battle scenes, and perhaps it explains why I’m so superstitious.
I came back to Washington in 1995 to do Macbeth at the Lansburgh Theatre. Joe Dowling directed, and Helen Carey played Lady Mac.
We used to keep these wax manifestations of the witches in my dressing room, these little candles. And you know the whole thing with the superstition. Macbeth is believed to be a cursed play, because it staged black magic. Olivier hated it. I’d heard about this for many years. It’s all about the witches, respect for the witches.
We didn’t have any accidents at all until the final performance. I remember talking to the cast and telling them not to take anything for granted because we had these intense battle scenes at the very end of the play.
Well sure enough, during the final battle, the actor playing Macduff sliced me right under the eye with his broadsword. I had this huge gash on my cheek and I was bleeding like a stuck pig. I couldn’t believe it. I did not get away, those witches wouldn’t let me off the hook. I thought I’d avoided the curse, but I didn’t. I got cut and I was very lucky I didn’t have my eye put out.
There hasn’t been anything like that for these Henry plays, thank God. It’s been a relief during the big battle scene at the end of Part 1 when Falstaff gets to play dead and all the younger actors to run around with swords. Better them than me.
Well, this has been a great trip down memory road. It was fun talking to you all and sharing my theatre experiences. Many of them have come in Washington, at the Shakespeare Theatre, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Till next time,
Drew Lichtenberg is in his third season as the Literary Associate at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and is the production dramaturg for Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama. Don’t miss Christopher Henley talks with Stacy Keach