The first question about any production of Henry V
-- any production going back to the first time that Shakespeare's company put it on after he wrote it -- is "how do you deal with the audacity of trying to put an empire-spanning war, including one of the most dramatic battles in English history, on a stage?"
Shakespeare's answer was to, in effect, "hang a lampshade on it"
. Do you know that phrase? It means to call attention to the ridiculousness of a concept, to encourage the audience to go along with it. Actually, the time Shakespeare REALLY did this was in Twelfth Night
, when, after the "big reveal" of everybody disguised as everybody else and all the other wackiness, one of the characters says, "If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction." In Henry V
, he uses a slightly different tack. He simply tells the audience that the task of representing what he's representing is impossible. So we, the audience, will have to fill the rest of it in.
I assume most of you know the speech that opens the play. If you're not familiar with it, you may want to take a quick look at it
before I go on.
Now, there are two ways you can go with this: you can take this as a challenge to fight against, and prove that you CAN do more to represent reality, or you can embrace it, and trust your audience to fill in the gaps. Of course, one can debate about what Shakespeare would have done if he could -- if he could, would Shakespeare have done a Cecil B DeMille "cast of thousands"? Would he have preferred to do a Battle of Agincourt with seventy thousand CGI warriors fighting?
It's an interesting question, but "what Shakespeare would have done" is not terribly relevant to the question of how a director wants to present the play.
The Actors' Shakespeare Project, under the direction of Normi Noel, has chosen to embrace the "trust the imagination" school of thought. They present a lean, spare production, in which the forty-some-odd characters in the play are portrayed by five actors: Ken Cheeseman, Paula Langton, Doug Lockwood, Seth Powers, and Molly Schreiber.
The space they use is the basement of the Garage in Harvard Square, the same space they played Titus Andronicus
and Love's Labours Lost
last season. Those of you who have seen those productions can remember the . . . challenges . . . of the space, not least of which is the big freakin' support post
smack dab in the middle of the room.
This production uses a similar layout as they did in Titus
, making the support post the center point of the stage, with seating on all four sides around it. This, naturally, means that, no matter where you sit, there WILL be times where you can't see exactly what is happening, or, at least, you can't see the facial expression of characters. Of course, the blocking they use attempts to minimize these problems, but it nonetheless can be frustrating. I know that some people I've talked to were annoyed by this when ASP put on Titus
in this space, so be aware that many of the same issues exist.
But they also use
this. It is a small space, and an awkward one, and they use that as part of the energy in the play. When Ken Cheeseman asked, ". . . can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?", a ripple of laughter went through the room, as we recognized the simple truth of that. The Prologue worked
in a way I've never seen it work before -- because the space was so small, the task of bringing forth this tale so impossible, the idea of presenting the scope of the story so ridiculous, that we, the audience, accepted the task of filling in the gaps with our imaginations.
Who remembers Infocom text adventures? Like Zork
and the rest? There was a way in which the best-written ones were more immersive than games written today with photo-realistic graphics and all the rest. There are ways that radio plays are more immersive than television, and books are more immersive than radio.
And storytelling can be the most immersive of all.
That, at least, is the goal of this presentation of Henry V
. The role of "Chorus" -- aka, the narrator -- is taken by different cast members at different times. And, for me, those were some of my favorite moments in the play -- when one of the members of the cast comes out, and talks to us, filling in bits of the story that just can't be staged.
Because of the space, because of the energy of the production, I, at least, felt comfortable allowing my mind's eye to fill in all the action sequences. This goes for the fight scenes, too. In previous productions, I've seen the fights done (in movies) with special effects and realism, I've seen impressive fight choreography, and once, I saw the fights done as interpretive dance. That last one was kind of embarrassing to watch.
In this production, the fighting happens offstage. We see people running in, exhausted, wounded, and sick, or victorious and bold, or disheartened, and from that, we know what happened. There is one exception: just before the "Once more into the breach" speech, they use a rather symbolic piece to show the English onstage attacking and being thrown back -- and, to me, that was one of the weakest moments in the play.
One final bit that I want to mention is the final scene, where Henry woos Katherine, the Princess of France, as part of the treaty to make a lasting peace between England and France. In order to have a happy ending (or, rather, as happy an ending as you can honestly have in a history), the play ends with a romance, to end the violence. The concept is that this marriage is, or at least, can be, a marriage of love, as well as one of political expedience, and Molly Schreiber and Seth Powers get only one scene in which to attempt to have two people meet and fall in love.
They nail it. The scene is just adorable
. I don't know what else I can say about it. Maybe "KAWAII!!!"
Directed by Normi Noel
January 10 – February 3
Downstairs at The Garage
38 JFK Street, Harvard Square