September 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Although Shakespeare’s texts are so ubiquitous as to be said to have a kind of permanence, productions are ephemeral – things of the moment. In saying so, we usually concentrate on their overall transience, without noticing that it also gives them amazing malleability to immediately respond to their specific (and frequently changing) context while they are running.
This weekend I saw Shakespeare Santa Cruz’ penultimate performance of its production of Henry V, which reminded me again of this astonishing quality of live theater. Before I take up that context, a few words of praise for the production itself.
Director Paul Mullins*’ staging of the production was the most beautiful of any Shakespeare play I have seen in years. His extraordinarily dynamic choreography of cast movement, and composition of contrasting still moments, was often breathtaking. He and his design team (Michael Ganio, scenic; B. Modern, costume; Peter West, lighting) created an extraordinary visual experience on the recently rebuilt outdoor stage in Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, amidst the towering redwoods that surround and back the thrust.
Using as many as a dozen access points to the stage, armies appeared and disappeared in seconds. In his best stage picture, while awaiting the decisive battle at Agincourt, the ragged and dirty English army huddled fearfully on the stage while their French opponents (dressed in what looked suspiciously, and wittily anachronistically, like polo whites) hovered above them on the second story of the set open to the sky. Once the battle was fully engaged, and the tables had turned, the fierce English combatants froze in tableau while the stunned French noblemen bled out under them onto the forestage to perform. The reversal from their towering power to being literally trod underfoot was all we needed to know about what had happened in the battle, and how suddenly it had all come about.
During the presentation there were many bravura performances, some of which might have seemed more powerful to those of us who had already seen the other production in the summer’s repertoire, The Taming of The Shrew. (My review here.) The rock solid team of Fred Arsenault as Captain Gower and Conan McCarty as Captain Fluellen (Petruchio and his servant Grumio in Shrew) demonstrated what repertory performance is all about in incisively-realized supporting roles. Kit Wilder’s turn as Pistol provided expert comic relief. William Elsman’s over-the-top (in the best possible way) portrait of the Dauphin in the seldom-performed scene about a sonnet written to his horse could easily have been interpolated from a production of Equus for all its sensual intensity.
The hard-working actors playing multiple roles were especially effective. Marion Adler as Mistress Quickly and the French lady-in-waiting Alice, V Craig Heidenreich as The Archbishop of Canterbury, The King of France, and Sir Thomas Erpingham, and Robert Nelson as Nym and the scene-stealing Monsieur Le Fer were all models of versatility. The company’s artistic director, Marco Barricelli, as the play’s famous narrating Chorus and the Duke of Burgundy was the charismatic anchor for the evening.
A production of Henry V ultimately rests on the shoulders of its title character, who speaks a third of the total lines in the play. Charles Pasternak returns after having previously played Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part II for the company. Narrative continuity possibly contributes to his compelling, confident performance of Henry as fully-redeemed prodigal. Pasternak has a powerful presence, and a great theatrical voice, that fills the space to create the illusion of an heroic icon.
Interpretively, I must say, that performance was surprising, as was the overall vision of the play that surrounded it. I have never seen a more unrelentingly positive interpretation of Henry. How, and why exactly, that might be, is the main subject of essay.
Henry Light and Dark
Henry V is an ambiguous play, even by Shakespearean standards. Henry’s motivations are often hard to read, but from his first scene in the play when considering a declaration of war it is not clear whether he is more manipulating or manipulated. Post-Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction debacle of the Bush Era, it is hard to see either as entirely admirable, however.
Such careful balancing is so thoroughly ingrained into the text, that in a famous essay (which I discussed at length in this previous review) the play is used as an example of conflicting and irresolvable perceptions.
Of course, its best-known incarnation is still Olivier’s 1944 film, produced as pro-British propaganda during World War II. As is often the case in the more visual medium of film, the text was heavily edited both to streamline and simplify it. One of the main thrusts of that editing was to remove all the incidents from the play that complicate the picture of Henry as anything but noble. By the time of Kenneth Branaugh’s 1989 remake, both the world and critical fashion has shifted. The latter film is far darker, and it does not begin to enter into the bleak negativity of many theatrical productions that now directly comment on current politics.
Mullins’ production does not cut the complicating incidents, such as Henry’s order to massacre the prisoners-of-war, nor his “discovery” of a plot against his life by Lord Scroop (who historically had as strong of a claim to the throne as Henry) and the subsequent execution of the conspirators, but at least in the performance I saw all of these incidents were treated as fleeting and absolutely justified under the circumstances. Even when momentarily highlighted, as when we heard the shots executing the conspirators, one flinch and it was forgotten.
The most fearsome speech in the play, in which Henry threatens:
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
If [you will] not [surrender], why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.
…to force the surrender of Harfleur, was delivered with neither pity nor remorse as if it were exemplary leadership.
At least superficially, Santa Cruz would seem to be about the last place on earth you would see such an interpretation. (For far-flung readers not in the know, the city and the university have a reputation for leftist politics even among nearby San Franciscans, which is saying something.)
A Hawk in the Forest
Two things might account for this unexpected hawkishness. The first is that Shakespeare Santa Cruz is a “theater” in the fullest sense of the word, not just an institution offering a product, but a community. The audience is very much part of the equation, and they are a very educated and savvy one. The Festival’s bookstore offers not just the usual knick-knacks and sweatshirts, but a full shelf of used books that might well come from the English faculty’s cast-offs. I’ve seen less erudite reading lists in graduate courses. In performance they are so quick that they can get ahead of the performance. The Hostess (Mistress Quickly) has a famous speech about Falstaff’s last moments that innocently undercuts its own point with unintentional double-entendre, punning on the Elizabethan euphemism “stones” for testicles:
Hostess: So [he] bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
In the Santa Cruz performance, Marion Adler’s delivery began to get laughs as soon as she began, long before she even said the word “stone.” (I experienced a sudden wave of nostalgia remembering my high school years. While my classmates were chuckling at the schoolyard classics like, “Give us a light there, ho,” I could point out where the real “dirty” stuff was. Nerd popularity.)
More to the point, I realized by about the middle of the second act that this was an audience that did not need to moral ambiguities to be spelled out for them. Murmurs swept through the crowd at each of the critically-fetishized ambiguous moments, nearly to the point of distraction. Just behind me, a patron loudly whispered, “That is what Cheney said,” in the middle of Canterbury’s great speech justifying going to war.
Most scholars agree that in Shakespeare’s own time this was a popular hit because of what we would now call “jingoism,” even if twentieth century experience has greatly complicated it. It is interesting to see the play performed so nationalistically, but it takes confidence in the audience to do so without fearing that you will be seen as advocating that position. Only when the performers and the audience have great faith in each other can the ambiguity of the text be in the audience’s understanding instead of the company’s spin.
An even more specific, and sad, circumstance is that earlier in the week in which I saw the play, the host university announced that they could no longer subsidize the company and were closing it. (See my longer post here.) The performance I saw was given in the last two days of the company’s existence – at least in its current form. I wondered, without having any way to know, if the heroic Henry might be due to the embattled circumstance in which the company found itself, and the natural inclination to coalesce around a charismatic leader in a time of crisis. In other words, I wonder if the production became less ambiguous, and more about a tough underdog fighting against a larger enemy in response to the circumstance under which the play was being performed. There was a talk-back after the performance I saw, which included a lot of talking back, but little of it about the play, which would indicate that the closing was on the audience’s collective mind. I speculate that Pasternak may have been taking on some of Henry’s challenge to serve as figurehead for a fight against overwhelming odds.
Of course, I hope for the company’s survival, and mourn the loss of its university subsidy, but my point here is not to rehash quarrels to which I am not an insider and about which I have too little knowledge. It is to wonder if the very effective (if surprising) nature of this performance might have been a response to the conditions of the moment. I had actually expected the opposite reading, the bigger picture being the crisis in Syria, the bombing of which seemed imminent on the day of the play, but as they say, “all politics is local.” I cannot prove my thesis, not having seen the production before the university’s announcement, but if it is right I celebrate the instant adaptability of theater to respond to the needs and attitudes of its audience. It is part of the reason that, despite eternal signs of its decline, the theater is as perennial as the grass.
*By way of disclosure, I should I should mention that I attended theater school with Mullins, whose acting I much admired, although I have not been in communication with him since. His work as a director post-dates our acquaintance.