Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V

I took a break today. I went to the theatre.

After a long day of writing last-minute conference abstracts and chairing talk sessions for the RSAA grad students, I decided it was time to see my first Shakespeare show in quite a while. Well, not that long. Went by myself — thought I might meet up with some RSAA grad students and postdocs, but saw nary a one at the show.

Like the production of Twelfth Night that so endeared me to them before, Bell Shakespeare delivered a delightfully meta Henry V. The former was a play-within-a-play put on by refugees from a bushfire emergency huddled around a campfire; the latter is played by students sheltering in a classroom from the London Blitz. War, and the fog, confusion, and tragedy thereof, are a constant presence throughout. The opening minutes are a salvo of flickering lights and deafening noise, with occasional glimpses of tableaux of uncertain humans clutching each other, balanced on the knife edge of relief and pain. Whereas in Twelfth Night only tedium reigned in the world of the play, with all the action taking place in the Shakespearean-play-within-the-play, in Henry V we are constantly jarred between the two levels of action as the classroom is shaken by ordnance and air-raid sirens.

I recognize the split-level action as a formula, but it’s a formula that seems to work for me. Staging Shakespearean plays as plays-within-plays presents two advantages on which Bell Shakespeare capitalizes very well: First, it is a constrained format that unleashes creativity with minimal, carefully-chosen props, and pointedly outsources to us the work of imagining what some of the more spectacular scenes look like. Second, it engages our sympathy by presenting an intermediate between each character and ourselves, making romance that much more delightful, and war and murder that much more dreadful. I commented last time in particular on how level-crossing in Twelfth Night brought the gender-bending to a new level, as each character’s sex, gender identity and orientation could be interpreted in multiple different ways within the world of the play and within the re-imagined Shakespearean-play-within-the-play; this invites us to see members of the other sex, gender and orientation as humans like ourselves. Henry V uses a similar approach to deconstruct the myths of martial nobility within war: the characters in the play are frightened teens hoping the savagery outside will pass them over, yet they distract themselves in the Shakespearean-play-within-a-play by taking on the roles of bellicose princes and coarse men-at-arms rattling their swords. Particular attention is paid to Shakespeare’s texts underlining the human costs of war and the chivalric virtues of restraint and mercy, and to King Henry’s shouldering of personal responsibility for lives lost when he breaks with these virtues for pragmatic reasons.

Eventually the students start reading aloud to each other. The ensemble runs through ultracondensations of Richard II and Henry IV 1 & 2 to provide a modicum of backstory. The schoolmaster then delivers the opening chorus lines of Henry V (“O for a muse of fire!”), channeling the students’ efforts to voice-act the play in the current moment:

SCHOOLMASTER (as Chorus) …Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

With occasional interruptions from the bombs outside. The traditional apology shows up the even greater conceit of the play-within-a-play than the usual, but the schoolmaster is equal to it; he steals the show with his presence. The players oscillate, sometimes gradually and sometimes jarringly, between being rowdy schoolchildren playing the characters and playing the characters themselves. As props they use the blackboard, chalk, erasers, etc., and turned-over bookshelves to evoke scenery — whatever they might be expected to have ready-to-hand in their nutshell of infinite space.

This provides ample opportunity for humor. In his endearing pedantry, the schoolmaster-chorus maps in chalk a tangled web of lineages and intrigues among the royal houses of medieval Europe, in a history-lesson on Salic law doubling as King Henry’s claim to the French crown, then turns to King Henry as though the reasoning should be obvious (“as clear as is the summer’s sun”). Near the end of this:

SCHOOLMASTER (as Canterbury) Also, King Louis the Tenth —
SCHOOLGIRL Ninth.
SCHOOLMASTER Tenth.
SCHOOLGIRL Ninth.
SCHOOLMASTER Tenth.
SCHOOLGIRL Ninth.
SCHOOLMASTER (throwing book to the floor) Look it up.

(She defaces “Louis X” on the chalkboard with a single stroke, making “Louis IX”, when her mentor’s back is turned.)

Midway through playing Falstaff in the Henry IV flashback, the kindly schoolmaster suffers a mild heart attack, yet recovers. Not long after, Pistol tells us “for Falstaff he is dead”, and the schoolmaster is shown lying “cold as any stone”. The students are jarred back into their prison in the Blitz, mourning their mentor — who, like a Jedi ghost, rises unseen by the others from his bookshelf bier and lurks in the wings while the action continues. He still delivers the chorus lines, now unheard by the students.

This device is played twice more as two others among the cast die in the wartime action, each death an individually traumatic event with its own trigger: natural causes, tragic accident, killing in blind rage (“I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant”). A bloodied German POW stands in for the slaughtered French prisoners. The shades rise and retire from the main-stage action, their parts now being echoed by the remaining students who continue reading through their tears. Besides the constant fear of dying in battle, the play brings us to wonder at how our own humanity may be transformed in coming face to face with an enemy we cannot recognize as human, or the equal dread of seeing one’s friends and loved ones senselessly slain, and having to carry on in their absence.

One poignant re-staging touching on wartime atrocities: Catherine of Valois is seen learning English, in part, by phonetically sounding out a newspaper article reporting on the siege of Harfleur. At the play’s conclusion, as King Henry tries to seal his conquest of France with a kiss, Catherine, sobbing inconsolately, produces the dog-eared newspaper and reads Henry’s own words back to him:

HENRY V. If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king. And what sayest thou then to my love? speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.
CATHERINE. “…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 –”
Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of France?!
HENRY V. …No; it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate: but, in loving me, you should love the friend of France…

I almost wonder whether this is overplayed, because it is hard to manage how even such a player as Prince Hal was known to be could pull off this second conquest. He does manage it, but realistically, it’s hard for the French to refuse his suit at swordpoint.

The play might start as an exercise in nationalistic wartime propaganda (“go England! beat Germa– I mean France!”), with marching songs sung as the students tromp through their imagined France. But by the end it’s just as much about what they’ve lived and are living through, with all the dead on both sides honored and remembered well.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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