Ben Henson talks about TITUS and THE TEMPEST with Alex Bonham
Ben Henson is tucking into his breakfast outside Shenken in a dark blue Zambezi smock, his hair pulled onto the top of his head like a diminutive Samurai warrior. After 15 years directing plays, 30 in the last five years alone, he has scored an internship with the ATC, the NZ Opera, the Fortune and the Court, and is at last getting paid. It is all about the relationships that he will be able to make though. As he points out, it’s hard to knock on the door with the Fortune or the Court without this introduction, as everyone has their own shows all the time so they don’t see your work.
30 years-old. 31 on the 9th of March.
His all-male Titus got him noticed by the industry and he is super proud of PunkRock, and then in terms of being noticed by Auckland, it was Earnest. Sold out completely, and now trying to find avenues to bring it back, then No Psycho and now Titus again... and also The Tempest, both on at the Pop-Up Globe over the next few weeks, which is what we are really here to talk about.
Titus was originally a Unitec show. The same cast has now returned, same props, but new staging to work in the 360 degree space. It has given the show much more room and air.
‘In the original staging, in the black box, and the lighting and everything, my aim was to create a sense of claustrophobia, and now with open lighting, no lighting cues, the set is now all about exploring the chaos of the play. I’ve got six ladders on the stage that they are running up and down and flipping under. Everyone is competing for the audience to be on their side which builds the chaotic feel, and by just having seven actors, they have to run around at breakneck speed. Revenge is a childish pursuit so the first death is of a teddy bear.
When we first rehearsed it I got the boys doing a drama school game - it doesn’t have a name, I call it the Shoe Game. A shoe is put in the middle of the floor and one actor calls out to take it, but once the shoe is touched, anyone can be tagged, so it becomes this big feral fight – it is one of the most violent drama games I know. I folded that into the rehearsal period each day, then swapped the shoe for a teddy, and then the teddy belonged to Cole. I stepped it up to a point where it became safe to bully Cole, and they would take the teddy from him. I kept escalating things till we reached the point where people would really die.’
‘Except not die really,’ I say, ‘you’d need a new cast every night’.
He laughs, ‘They jump through the trapdoor’.
So do you try and lead actors through rehearsals so they experience things for themselves?
‘That is always the aim. There is this contradiction in the way that I work in that I’ll approach things in a way that it appears as if I am working as an auteur stamping myself on the text, but I would say that I do what I do because the text asks that of me.’
‘Do you have a concept for The Tempest?’ I ask.
‘Industrial jetsom for the look of it. The more magical the play, the less contrived all the elements should be because it is about massaging the imagination. The Globe stands for that, it is about having a bare stage in broad daylight and everyone standing in front of you. I have 150 white plastic chairs, they are all in modern dress, Prospero’s book is a Yellow Pages and the audience just goes along with it. It’s this strange thing. When the staff is a stick that the designer has stuck with beautiful stars, you start to challenge it, ‘Yeah, yeah, so you’re magic, are you? Prove it!’ We have been spoilt by TV and film that feeds it to us, but in the theatre, you need to aim for simplicity to take the audience off guard.’
Do you have an equivalent with the teddy bear in The Tempest?
‘I haven’t to be honest. The Tempest is a very different ball game because it is so led by Prospero. Essentially, you are in Prospero’s head the whole time. And there is such an anchor to The Tempest, while Titus is ‘Titus versus Tamerlain’. So it is not the same. The Tempest is Prospero spinning this coil and then managing it as it happens. So we haven’t needed a process to get inside it, as Lisa is already there.
Lisa Harrow – ex-RSC actor for forty years – is going through her own process as Prospero, having never been in a modern production of Shakespeare. From a personal perspective she is a staunch purist, but as an actor she is finding a release, finding different things from when she played the role before, and so the depth we are able to mine for is even deeper. You can’t unlock a play in its entirety with a short rehearsal period and a three-week season. And if Titus has taught us anything it’s that’.
Do you find that Lisa’s presence raises the game for other members of the cast?
‘Absolutely. Every single member of the cast has absorbed masses from her. It has been a highlight of my time here because here is an actor who has not only reached a high level, but has been there for so long, it has been a very special thing.
I recall that it is rare to have a woman Prospero.
‘There are 24 in the cast and I have cast gender-blind. You go with who is going to make the character come alive.’
The great thing about these shows is that you will see a non-traditional production in a traditional space.
'The Globe is a symbol of the past, it isn’t the past. It is about celebrating and unlocking possibilities for the space... I think Miles (Miles Gregory, artistic director of The Globe) is freaking out that I have 150 chairs – I think he was expecting an empty stage. Wait until I tell him about all the blood…’
And off he dashes gleefully to a radio interview. Ben Henson is on his way.
Titus and The Tempest are on in repertory at the Pop-Up Globe.