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.
September 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
Since Norman Rabkin’s 1981 article, “Either/Or: Responding to Henry V,” it has been a commonly accepted view that Henry V is a play which contains a deep dichotomy. Rabkin invoked the analogy of a famous optical illusion, the Rabbit/Duck, to argue that the play contains two almost opposite readings that co-exist at all times but no matter how great the effort, one can only see it one way at a time. The play is either a rabbit – elevating Henry into “the mirror of all Christian kings” – or a duck – portraying the king as a ruthless, duplicitous manipulator. (Of course, the assignment of rabbit or duck could be reversed, but Rabkin’s argument is that in performance he is always one or the other, never a dabbit, never a ruck.)
Even scholars who are not fond of the infelicity of Rabkin’s essay, of which there are many, tend to accept its premise. Critical agreement suggests that both Olivier and Branaugh created rabbits on film, while Michael Bagdanov’s stage version from the 1980s (easily found in its entirely on YouTube) is the archetypal antiheroic duck.
I recently took in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s “Free Shakespeare in the Park” production, reset to the general period of World War I, (albeit with enough deliberate anachronisms – ranging from a huge reproduction of the WWII “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster to optic yellow tennis balls – to keep it vague) under the insightful direction of Kenneth Kelleher.
Craig Marker’s superb performance as Henry successfully dislodged the rabbit/duck cliché in a manner both simple and direct. His young king begins his journey as an overconfident, but naïve, new monarch itching to prove himself. Flattered by both church(men) and state(smen) he quickly embarks on his campaign to conquer France and claim its crown. His ego swells when he providentially uncovers a plot against his life and discovers that he literally commands men’s fates with a word. For the first act he quacked like a duck, callow at best and possibly downright Machiavellian. Much of the local critical response has pegged him as such throughout. (Robert Hurwitt, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, thought him “conflicted” and “confused,” but read the production as propagandistically anti-war.)
Marker’s performance is far more nuanced than that, however. In Kelleher’s smart staging, things begin going south on his plans almost immediately on his arrival in France. The siege of Harfleur does not go well and the set piece, “Once more into the breach,” had an edge of desperation about it, absolutely justified since this production got right (for the first time in my experience) that his troops did not immediately overrun the walls. Instead a standoff ensues. Henry’s desperate bluff that the Governor of Harfleur unconditionally surrender lest he turn his army loose to rape, pillage and slaughter the innocents (a speech that is often completely omitted in rabbit productions) turned even darker than usual when, clearly “losing it,” he held a cocked gun to the head of a captured, unarmed peasant girl. His threat to summarily execute her in front of the governor was chilling and effective. Immediately after, however, Marker’s Henry began a long, slow climb toward self-knowledge. His actions had horrified him, and he collapsed. The order that his Uncle Exeter should occupy the city on his behalf when the gates are opened is usually played as anxiously wanting to press forward. Here Marker seemed to interpret the speech as a desperate desire to (literally) distance himself from his actions as quickly as possible.
For the rest of the war Henry learns the hard way the costs of battle. He is frightened for his men. Although he starts out far from a “brother” in this band, each encounter forces him to deal with the realities of his choices, particularly effectively in his early morning encounter (just before the impending battle of Agincourt in which they are vastly outnumbered) with Sean Robert Garahan’s excellent Williams. (The subsequent “quarrel” sub-plot was cut, which helped move the plot along briskly but deprived us of the opportunity to see this fine young actor develop the character fully.)
Henry is inspirational not out of inherent heroism, but from a growing assumption of moral responsibility to get his men out of the situation alive in which he has placed them. His order to kill the French prisoners, another speech often omitted in rabbit productions because it amounts to a war crime, was not glossed as panic but came across as his making the unavoidable decision so that his men did not have to do so.
Marker was at his best in his last exchange with the French herald. It is the scene in which Henry feebly confesses that, in the fog of war, he does not know if he has won the battle or not. When the herald told this Henry that he was not there to demand ransom again, but to surrender, Marker’s character burst into tears of relief.
Although Marker dominated the production, as his character does the text, he was not the only actor of note. The company was comprised of a mixture of experienced professionals and younger actors. The unevenness occasionally showed but did not misbalance the production. Michelle Delattre’s supporting contributions as the French Princess’ lady-in-waiting Alice, and Mistress Quickly were of Marker’s caliber, and her versatility especially shone through when employing her Celtic-style singing to effect transitions. (Newcomer Barnaby James also deployed a beautiful tenor similarly, and held his own in the minor roles of Bedford and Orleans.) Maggie Mason doubling as Princess Katherine and Falstaff’s former page, known only as Boy, showed a deft, dry wit.
The comedic scenes featuring Falstaff’s old pals transplanted from Eastcheap into the war were less effective, often coming off as somewhere between contrived and condescending, although Jack Powell and Michael Ray Wisely did wring genuine pathos out of Bardolph and Pistol’s final moments.
The role of Chorus, often a bravura part, was divided among the company, reducing its impact considerably. Some famous passages soared, but the focus lay elsewhere for most of this simply costumed and designed production. In the end, it was Marker’s performance that proved revelatory.
When reading the text, I have often found Rabkin’s argument to be true, because the experience of reading is totalizing. Henry is heroic or Machiavellian (but not both at once) because the script adds up one way or the other. In performance, however, things unfold over time. Marker’s duck started a fight for all the wrong reasons and then grew into hard won rabbithood – more a product of humility than heroism when it came. It was the first time I have ever believed a Henry truly thought the victory was due to the benevolence of his deity, and not because it was his birthright or his leadership. Dabbits exist, after all.