Working at the Folger has been (and this is totally not hyperbole) one of the great pleasures of my life. Henry V is my third outing on this Elizabethan stage, and each of the shows I’ve done has challenged me and taught me some pretty cool new skills. There was The Gaming Table, my first-ever Restoration comedy, then the physically demanding and deeply spiritual experience of The Conference of the Birds, and now the double-duty demands of The Boy and the French Princess Katherine in Henry V. Attempting to credibly portray a young boy was (and is) a great acting challenge, and attempting to credibly speak French in front of the very savvy Folger audiences was (and is) a horse of a different color for this actor, indeed.
“You must speak French fluently,” said several people after our opening night show. I feel ambivalent about answering the implied question here, because on the one hand, I’m thrilled that audience members believe that I’m a French speaker. On the other, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’m not. Many moons ago, I did take French classes in high school. I won’t specify exactly how long ago that was, but suffice to say that those language classes have now long faded into a distant memory.
When I got the call to audition for this show, I knew that sounding French would be necessary to get the part. So first I panicked, and then I got to work. The first step was remembering some of the technical elements of the language, work similar to preparing any dialect. Where is the language placed in the mouth? What are some signature sounds produced in French that we speakers of American English do not habitually make? Even, what are the stereotypes of the French and how can they be helpful as inroads for a foreign speaker? Before tackling the acting of any of the scenes, I wanted to get the qualities of the language into my voice and body, so instead of singing in the shower, I spent a lot of time babbling to myself in French-esqe nonsense.
Then I felt ready to tackle Shakespeare’s text. I researched the translation of my scenes, parsing each phrase for the meaning, trying to unpack Katherine’s lines so that I could emphasize my words with truth. Here’s an example: in the first scene, Katherine must begin to learn English, as she will likely be “given” to Henry as part of any peace agreement (we’ve come a long way, ladies). She’s a quick study, and says: “Je pense que je suis le bon écolier. J’ai gangé deux mots d’Anglais vitement.” In English, this is: “I think I’m a good student. I’ve learned two words of English quickly.”
As an actor, I considered how I’d say those sentences in English. What words would I emphasize to make my point clear? How would you say it? I think the most operative words are “bon” (I’m a good student, not a bad one), “gangé” (the verb, what I’m doing), and “vitement” (not only am I doing this thing, my pace is super). And so on with each line, searching for how I would speak the language to portray the clearest intentions. Which is, in truth, what any actor does in any language. Here, it was just complicated by translation.
The dearest hope, of course, is that the intentions behind the French lines are clearly acted and that the audience can follow the scene, and that even those who have no background with French will be able to understand the relationship between these two women, the basics of what they’re talking about and what’s happening. To know if I’ve been successful in this task, however, you’ll have to come see the show! Please do!
Until next time!