Shakespeare's Tribe

Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

Henry V at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

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.)


Duck facing left or rabbit facing right?

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.

Production photo

Craig Marker as Henry V and Michael Ray Wisely as Exeter in Free Shakespeare in the Park’s 2012 production of Henry V (photo: John Western)

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.

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