One king and six wives and you’re both men; how does that work?
Stuart: Well noticed. I’ll explain. The whole thing was conceived when I went to Hever Castle in Surrey and saw a very famous Holbein painting of Henry VIII. It reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite place and suddenly I realised it was Howard. So I called him whilst standing in front of the picture and said “Has anyone ever told you you look like Henry VIII?” and he said, ”No they haven’t, actually.”
Is that true?
Howard: I have no recollection of this.
S: Really? I have a very strong recollection of it… Maybe I’ve made it up. But the story goes that Howard then said, “There’s a show in there somewhere.”
H: That’s possible because I’m always looking for the main chance.
S: And then I joked, or I quipped…
H: You anecdoted.
S: Yes, I anecdoted, “You play Henry and I’ll play all six wives,” and then Howard went really quiet and said, “That’s a really good idea, seriously.” We started to write the script and the rest is history.
So you road tested the show at Bristol Ferment…
H: Yes. Stuart was in America with Kneehigh and started to write some stuff down and he kept sending it to me and in the only way I knew how I said “Yes just carry on”. So us writing a show together quickly became Stu writing a show for me. He came back and we read it through and we laughed a lot - I suppose that’s the test for anything really.
S: When I started writing it I was just writing material to make Howard laugh, and to hear him say funny things that I could then write down. I would just take it to his house and say “Read this for me”, and we’d both end up on the floor laughing. It wasn’t until I was here doing Swallows and Amazons that I thought about doing it Ferment. So I took it to Sharon Clark (Bristol Old Vic’s Literary Producer) and asked her to read it.
What was the reaction?
S: Well I didn’t expect the reaction I got. I expected her to say, “It needs a bit of work here… maybe you could do this…” because I had never written anything before. But she just came and found me in the café and said “It’s a yes to your show.” And I thought oh dear, we’ve actually got to do it now.
How did you find the process of writing and did you want to be a part of that Howard?
H: I suppose Stu’s got that naïve kind of confidence, which is an incredibly good thing. I’ll write something and immediately get rid of it because I think it’s rubbish, whereas it became clear to me that Stu was on a bit of a roll. I felt involved in the writing process without putting pen to paper though.
S: You were very involved in the editing process…
H: …and we’ve written the music together.
H: We’ve been looking to find a way of working together for a while now. I’ve been working as an actors for years but I turned 40 last year and I thought it’s time to start making the kind of work that I want to make, and it was the same for Stu. Not that we haven’t enjoyed the work that we’ve done - but as an artist you always want to do your own thing. And that’s what’s great about Ferment. It allows you to try things out and be in control.
That must be really encouraging as an actor, writer, director or artist, just to have that open door…
It means that you don’t have to fight your way in any more. It’s now a completely open door. Like me - I had a go at writing and I’m a writer now and it’s that kind of attitude that inspires you to push yourself.
You’ve been doing this for a while, acting and performing, have you ever shared a stage together?
H: Many, many times. In fact, I was in Stu’s first professional job, a show called Up the Feeder Down the Mouth in 2001 – part of this annual ‘living history’ thing. We used to act out scenes from the play every half hour for audiences on the dockside. The number of actors involved dwindled year on year until eventually it was just me and Stu and we built up a relationship.
We did Wizard of Oz together in 2003/4. I was the Lion and Stu was the Scarecrow and we didn’t get on with Dorothy or the Tin man so we bonded over that. Then we did a telly thing…
S: Yes, we went for the same audition. I walked into the room and there was Howard waiting to go in. It was for a comedy double act.
H: We told the casting director we needed to go in together and we got the job.
Obviously you have a very solid partnership, tell us about the show itself, what happens, how serious is it, did you research it or not?
S: We play grotesque versions of ourselves, all our foibles are magnified if you like. Howard in the show is desperately trying to be taken seriously, his career’s on the line. I’m just larking around in a dress basically. The tension comes from me not taking it as seriously as Howard and him letting me know in no uncertain terms that that’s the case.
H: It starts like a ‘bromance’ and ends like a divorce. Which feels appropriate.
How many liberties do you take?
S: A hell of a lot. I did do research and…
H: …Well, you searched Wikipedia…
S: …There was a bit more to it than that, but I thought it was quite funny that it was ill researched.
H: It’s important for audiences not to come expecting a history lesson. There’s history in there…
S: …but it’s hidden behind ridiculous things that we’ve made up. I’ve tried to be as factually accurate as possible in terms of what happens to the wives, at least with the feelings involved. For instance, Henry had never met Ann of Cleeves before he married her. She came over and he said “No, I’m not marrying that” and it had to be annulled. We reflect that situation in the style of a blind date panel show.
H: We’re playing these grand ideas in a domestic setting. Apparently Henry and Jane Seymour used to do embroidery together. So there’s a scene where we embroider cushions.
S: Domestic bliss. Seems far fetched but it’s actually true.
There are some lovely songs in there too, tell us about writing those.
H: I had a chord sequence that I’d been mucking about with on the guitar and it sounded like an American, 1980s, soft rock song. Stu was round my house and I said “What do you think of this?” and he said “We could use that in the show. But what would it be appropriate for?” And I had this lyric, Oh Ann, and we thought about Henry having this crisis of conscience after beheading Ann Boleyn and writing a song, I’m sorry I cut your head off, It had to be done… so that’s what we wrote.
We knew Ann of Cleeves was German, so I suggested Kraftwork/Europop for her. Stu came up with the final song, I don’t want to say the title though as there’s a joke in it.
S: There’s a country and western ballad at the end. We use a loop station to layer up our voices and instruments and we let that run while we do other things to create a musical background.
So you are accomplished musicians?
S: We both started as musicians and we both play lots of different instruments so the music just happened really.
H: It’s also a great way of delivering comedy.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII is at Bristol Old Vic from 18 Apr - 12 May. For tickets call 0117 987 7877 or visit The Bristol Old Vic website
Images by Farrows Creatives