With Jasper Britton returning to the Royal Shakespeare Company to play the eponymous character in Gregory Doran’s productions of Henry IV, it seems a good time to delve into one of our newest collections in the Shakespeare Institute Library. Our intrepid leader, Karin Brown, is making great strides in expanding the SIL’s special collections, especially those items connected with the performance history of early modern plays. The Jasper Britton Script Collection contains five treasures from four of his Globe and RSC appearances: Macbeth and The Tempest from productions at the former and Gregory Doran’s productions of The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed from 2003.
Britton’s association with the RSC begins long before our script collection, having appeared in A Jovial Crew, The Beggar’s Opera, as Meander in Terry Hands’ production of Tamburlaine (which memorably had Antony Sher climbing up a rope and hanging upside down, just because he could I seem to recall – I’d be surprised if he did that again as Falstaff, although it’d be amusing with him reuinted with Britton in the Henry IVs) and as a Soothsayer in John Caird’s Antony and Cleopatra in the 1992-93 season. The first of Britton’s two ten year gaps between RSC Shakespeare appearances then occurred, during which time he (according to the World Shakespeare Bibliography) played Richard III for Brian Cox at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park in 1995 (incidentally, we also have the Open Air Theatre’s archive collection including material related to Jasper Britton’s Richard III; more of that another time), Theresites in Trevor Nunn’s Troilus and Cressida at the National Theatre in 1999 and Macbeth opposite Eve Best at the Globe in 2001. As a Troilus and Cressida addict, I’d love nothing else but to have a look through the script for that, but alas…
No sense in dwelling on what’s missing from Britton’s Shakespearean career, though. What we do have in the Jasper Britton collection is an unadulterated field day for the researcher of contemporary Shakespearean theatre. Unlike promptbooks, which record – with varying degrees of detail depending on the stage manager – the production as set when it reaches the stage, this collection of scripts details the actor’s rehearsal process through a mass of annotations written throughout Britton’s personal copies.
The breadth of the comments can be seen on one page of Macbeth in 1.3 just as the witches vanish and leave him alone with Banquo. Next to his line to the Witches, Britton writes: “or witches, what’s in it for you?”; halfway down the page in between Banquo’s “That takes reason prisoner?” and his response, Britton has noted “PAUSE”; and next to Ross’s lines on entry to the scene (“The King hath happily receiv’d, Macbeth”), Britton writes, “Don’t cross legs”. From this one page, we glean a paraphrase, a technical note on line delivery, and a note on the physicality of the character. In other words, a treasure trove of material detailing the process by which Britton has created the character. The snag is having the finished script and not being able to unpack the timeline of the annotations, so we don’t know how this layering developed. What we do know is that it happened, of course, which is extremely valuable to the theatre researcher because so little investigation delves into process.
The acting process is (to completely simplify something complex) about adding layers to the character in order to create a living, breathing and believable human being from the clues in the text and the imagination of the actor. What Britton’s scripts beautifully capture is the creation of subtext in the margins, providing an insight into the characters Britton built on stage. For The Taming of the Shrew, it is apparent that he was creating a sympathetic character out of what is unrelenting brutality on the page, interpreting Petruchio in a fresh and inventive way against the grain of usual portrayals of the character as a swaggering braggert. Britton’s motivations – as shown in these scripts – are counterintuitive, as with the act four arrival of Kate and Petruchio at the latter’s home. Britton writes on the blank page adjacent to the text in his Applause First Folio edition of the play a note for this scene, saying “All that goes wrong is awful because it’s not good enough for Kate.” Next to Petruchio’s line “Food, food, food, food!” Britton writes, “Ask for it! – for her – she’s starving,” which again implies his Petruchio is attempting to look after his new bride. Amusingly, Britton’s view of Petruchio as eager to please Kate extends to his dog, as his subtextual note corresponding with “Where’s my spaniel Troilus?” says, “he’s lovely – you’ll love him.” Those of you who are familiar with this scene are possibly shouting at your computer by now and saying what a beast Petruchio is to Kate, making her go to bed starving, picking fights with servants, etc. There’s a subtextual fix for that too as Petruchio is left alone to soliloquize “Thus have I politicly begun my reign” yet he’s thinking – according to Britton’s notes in the margin, “ F***ed that up, didn’t I?” These script annotations reveal an actor who takes risks in making choices by not going for the obvious reading, which translates into a three-dimensional and sympathetic character on the stage, as some reviewers noted: Susannah Clapp in the Observer noted “Britton’s finely judged Petruchio is no demon: he’s troubled and perplexed” and, similarly, picking up on the fine detail and nuance of Britton’s performance, John Peter in The Times wrote, “His swagger is brilliantly aggressive, but it hides a slight sense of insecurity that makes him human.” The Jasper Britton Script Collection provides a wealth of information about the actor’s thinking about his character and how he created his unconventional reading through thinking clearly about the subtext, marking his thoughts in the margin of his script.
Dr Jami Rogers (Library Support Assistant and alumna of the Shakespeare Institute)
Other actors’ scripts held by the University include those belonging to Samuel West (SIL), Nigel Hawthorne (SIL), Norman Painting (CRL), John Gielgud (CRL), Laurence Olivier (CRL), and Noel Coward (CRL) (SIL – held at the Shakespeare Institute Library, Stratford-upon-Avon / CRL – held at the Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham)