Saturday, August 7, 2010

Henry V at Bard

It only took 20 years, but last night I finally made it to Bard on the Beach to take in Henry V on the Studio Stage. I've never thought Shakespeare to be the ne plus ultra of theatre in the first place (and, indeed, I've seen more bad Shakespeare in performance than good), and the quirky, crunchy rusticity of its outdoor seaside setting that BOTB promotes as part of its west coast charm has never been a huge selling point for me. Plus, while the company showcases the work of some very fine local performers year-to-year, I also think it retains some lesser lights for not altogether sound repertory reasons, and could be a bit more adventurous and diverse in its casting.

However, I put aside those reservations this year. Partly this had to do with the fact that I had taught Henry V in my Intro to Drama course earlier this spring, which was organized around the theme of war. Having unpacked--with the help of the Chorus--the jingoism of some of Henry's speeches, and asked my students whether, based on his actions in the play, we should consider Harry a hero or a war criminal, I was interested in seeing director Meg Roe's take on the play's martial masculinities, and how she treated the rather dubious reasons promulgated by Henry and his advisors for going to war with France (what to do about those tennis balls, for example...). The fact that Roe had cast her husband, Alessandro Juliani, in the title role also helped. I'd long been a fan of Juliani's work as the traitorous Felix Gaeta on Battlestar Galactica, and his starring role as Frog in last year's stupendous production of after the quake only confirmed my opinion of his acting chops. Finally, my colleague Rob Kitsos--and collaborator on The Objecthood of Chairs--has contributed original choreography to the production. So, really, it was the the right alignment of elements that found me under the smaller of the two tents at Vanier Park last night.

First of all, Roe's production is a miracle of concision. Any mounting of the play that can get us all the way through to 4.1 and the crucial pre-Battle of Agincourt scene pre-intermission needs to be applauded. What might be sacrificed in terms of plot and character complexity (especially regarding the Archbishops' opening discussion of Henry's surprising switch from wayward rebellion to pious devotion to duty upon the death of his father and his assumption of the throne, and equally in terms of the Archbishops' own conspiring reasons to convince Henry to invade France) is made up for in terms of a swift pacing that recognizes that the play really only gets going once Henry and his men reach the gates of Harfleur. Then, too, Roe takes the Chorus at her word when she says at the outset that the "wooden O" of a theatrical stage cannot do their story proper justice in truly representing the scale and scope of a story that moves between England and France, that features pitched battlefield scenes, and a cast of literally thousands of characters. Heeding the Chorus' advice for us in the audience to use our imaginations, Roe plays on the intimacy of Bard's Studio Stage, using simple design effects to turn the upstage entrance into the prow of a ship or the gates to Harfleur, and having her actors switch between their doubled roles as soldiers of France and soldiers of England by making some clever signals in costuming.

As the Chorus, Colleen Wheeler brings great stage presence and a suitable gravitas to the role, anchoring us in the story, if not exactly trying to colour our interpretation of that story, as in some revisionist productions. And here is where I would say my only real criticism of this staging comes in: this most political play is for all intents and purposes devoid of politics. Roe certainly does not shy away from showing us the brutality of war, and the scene where the Welsh Captain Fluellen (an excellent Andrew McNee) enters carrying the brutally murdered young Boy (a preternaturally poised Joseph Gustafson) is gut-wrenching. But at the same time there is little to no questioning of Henry's motives for going to war in the first place, nor of some of the decisions Henry makes in the name of war: the executions at Southampton of the traitorous Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge; the execution of Bardolph for his looting in France (an act that while interestingly performed on stage in this production had curiously little effect/affect on this viewer in terms of how we're meant to interpret the King's treatment of his former friends); and the order of the slaughter of the French prisoners, an order that's crucially given in Shakespeare's text before Henry knows of the French massacre of the young boys attending the English luggage).

Granted, I have not seen Bard's production of Falstaff, the reworked version of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 running in rep with Henry V, so I can't say exactly what continuities and/or changes in character we witness in Prince Hal/King Henry over the course of the two plays. And yet while I appreciated Juliani's naturalism in the title role, I didn't get much of a sense of him wrestling with his conscience regarding the justness of his war, nor in his arguments with Williams in 4.1--and in the soliloquy that follows--a sense of just what is at stake morally and ethically in his adherence (despite the sins of his father and grandfather and great-uncle) to kingly duty and ceremony. Whatever gender politics one might also discern in the final love scene between Henry and Katherine (a winning Amber Lewis) tend to be likewise obscured by the overt playing of this scene for comedy--which, in the expert hands of Juliani, did work, I have to say.

Where I think Roe takes the most risks in this production is in her approach to movement on stage. She correctly recognizes that this is a very physical play, and does not shy away from representing the labour of war. Which is where Rob's contributions come in, using a combination of dance choreography and martial arts moves to both abstract and literalize the kinesthetics of medieval battle, with its strange and heavy weaponry (swords and crossbows), its close proximity (ie, mostly hand-to-hand combat), and its interminability (pitched battles that go on for days). All of this is aptly signaled in the heaviness of the men's backwards and forwards steps, in the massings of bodies on stage, in the repeated and exchanged gestures that telegraph futility and exhaustion among the rank and file. Showcased on its own at select moments throughout the play, especially during the climactic Battle of Agincourt, Rob's choreography allows the audience a pause from the text, but by no means from the action represented in/by the text. Indeed, in daring to show us what the combat we hear about actually might look light, Roe and Kitsos also suggest that this battle isn't going to be won, as the Dauphin (an energetic Charlie Gallant) thinks, by superior steeds on the French side, nor even, as Henry thinks, by the hand of God guiding the English, but rather by which side has the most men left standing at the end of the day.

And therein lies the politics of this play: in its movement.


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