Saturday, 4 July 2009

Henry V

This is an experiment I did in the studio today with the actor Tom Holloway to develop a poster design for a production of Henry V planned at Eye Castle in 2010. I have to qualify it's an experiment because I didn't use any lighting or backdrops and have treated it as work in progress. The final poster will be a composite of several images and likely heavily photoshopped to add the elements of blood, armour etc. we didn't have to hand.

The poster designer Steve Peck had been working with Tom on a detailed poster sketch and Tom had done a shoot for the central figure which had been unsatisfactory. (It was flattering to asked to come in to fix things).

Steve Peck sent me a brief for a pose which Tom and I followed as above, but moving the sword more into frame because we didn't think it Tom's hands looked right and the gloves we had weren't good enough and also perhaps subliminally, I recognise that the hilt of a sword is often used as a metaphor for a spiritual dimension.

Looking at the file now the job was done in about ten minutes but Tom wanted to, and I was game to, take the time to see if we could come up with something else and explore some other ideas. What followed was a collaboration between a photographer and an actor to exploit each other's craft of communication. Here we explored our ideas on the semiotics of poses and theatre poster design which I am sure there is a PhD on somewhere.

For Tom a challenge was working in the minute intimate space of the camera frame, finding a 'look' that models understand is their craft; which is vastly different than the expansive expressions required sometimes for the stage.

I think good model understands about communicating with posture, expression and gaze - much like acting but without a voice - and the model's skill is being able to find it reliably and
regularly to give the photographer what they're after, for which they can be grossly overpaid.

Pretty boys and girls should know that a model that can't do that won't get much work. For me, the photographer, my challenge was like the theatre director's task of recognising it
and capturing that and guiding Tom to find it in himself.

In any creative endeavor, it is always a good idea to look around you to see what has gone before so you don't reinvent the wheel and to see what you can borrow for inspiration. This raises a discussion about making choices, whether the ideas you wish to appropriate, the source of inspiration, are appropriate to your ends. I do notice the double meaning of appropriate here.

Henry V was a challenging topic. How could we find an image that was visually arresting, majestic and that also conveyed something relevant about the interpretation of the play? What was the the interpretation of the play to be anyway?

Casting around for other examples showed - to us - a variety of interpretations used on posters or press images.

Once source I thought might be interesting was combat photojournalism. I have always admired the work of photojournalist Don McCullin, partly because as a child seeing his work from Vietnam and Northern Ireland in the Sunday newspapers in my sixties childhood, I imagined he was a heroic figure himself.

Tom and I tried to deconstruct what is so visually compelling about one of my favourite images of his (favourite I should qualify as the one that has been the most memorable) of a shell-shocked soldier 'Hue 1968' to see if we could convey some of that elusive and horrific quality. This lead to some interesting insights for me about the image as, in trying to recreate it, it revealed (to us at least) hidden truths.

I found this image of a Manchester production of Henry V and although it wasn't a poster, I recognised that -for me - this image was another pieta and that it invoked something the famous 'Death of a Loyalist Soldier' by Robert Capa.

It wasn't a direction we wanted to go in but Tom and I recognised that war is dirty and that muddying him up a bit would convey some 'grit' into the image we were after, whatever that was. Tom and I went outside and raided a flowerbed for some Suffolk earth.

I tried to deconstruct what makes McCullin's image so arresting? A figure sitting down holding a rifle looking straight at the camera (as we found) does not convey what this image conveys. Tom found he had dig deep into his actors' toolbox to find the physical posture necessary.

The soldier is hunched forward, the shoulders are compressed, almost concave, and the hands are putting weight on the rifle. When Tom tried an expression of determination, the facial expressions and posture came out wrong but when he looked for a sense of womb-like numbness, it started to gell.

We began to discuss then whether this was appropriate for
'our' Henry V production. Would McCullin's message (what we understood it to be) that 'war is hell' be appropriate for the planned production?

All sorts of marketing and critical evaluations stem from that question. If the poster 'promised' a intimate reflection of the nature of warfare perhaps, but our production's USP (and reason for being) was to be massively complex battle recreations which are going to require considerable community involvement. Achieving this will be a social enterprise engaging people with theatre. Would our poster be deceptive or a clever counterpoint confounding expectations?

Tom had earlier said he wanted to explore the character as at a crossroads, someone who was visionary but troubled by the price their actions would cost and convey more humanity than the stoic, heroic, vaguely threatening figure in the sketch.

Branagh's poster uses the device of looking up and to the distance as both a metaphor for asking for divine guidance. The resolute expression of his mouth conveys he has made his decision, the contrast implies the risk that this course action entails; "I don't know how but it must be done". In Branagh's poster the viewer is subliminally told what the story is about with all the window dressing of props and background soldiers to put it in context.

Tom and I had discussed whether we needed a crown or helmet prop, as in the poster sketch, but we could see that if Branagh didn't have one it didn't matter, it would be the sword prop that conveyed the martial context of the story. But then too much resolution in his face in the context of the sword would make it look like a horror movie, which I'd say has some potential: how about 'Maniac Knight'?

Perhaps Branagh thought an uncovered head conveyed his vulnerability? Or was it vanity that the star must be recognisable? I say Branagh wanted it, it would have more likely have been the poster designer of course.

We didn't want to rip off Branagh's pose - it didn't fit in the sketch anyway - so we explored finding something of our own to say something similar. For a laugh we did a rip-off the Kill Bill pose, something that Tarantino had done in the first place. Perhaps the visual recognition it might have would be a good marketing ploy?

I suppose it'll be up to the audience for the final poster to say if we succeeded or not. It is still a work in progress.


Here is the final poster 

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