Tags: apt

new year

Henry V, or, Who's Zoomin Who

Last night we went out to American Players Theater to see Shakespeare's Henry V, and today I am still full of WTF. We picked up replyhazy and She Who Must Not Be Named Online from where they each work, and had a nice drive out to Spring Green, where we pickanicked with another carful of fans, on a variety of box lunches which Our Own True Organizer had conveniently kept track of since we ordered tickets, like, last March. (Mr S told me later that I cook better than the Hubbard St Diner box lunch he got, which is nice.) Another pleasant thing was running into Elinor taking tickets and at the concessions stand, who used to work at Parks, since she retired and is now volunteering and we hadn't seen her for ages.

But the play was maybe showing its age. I hadn't seen it since Kenneth Branagh's 1989 movie, and only then the once, but several of our companions had seen that a number of times. As replyhazy put it, those history plays always make us want to go read some actual history. And both she & I have already read rather a lot about the Wars of the Roses, and still even with diagrams it's confusing, particularly since everyone seems to be named Henry or Edward, or else are great lords named after what are now major population centers. And then Mr Shakespeare applied so much spin presumably for the Elizabethan audience, it's hard to tell what's going on, and why are they putting on this play anyway four hundred years later.

I was particularly struck with the amount of French dialogue in the play, and the expectation that an Elizabethan audience would of course be able to follow jokes in French. No time to translate for Mr S, as it moved right along. It was easy to tell who the bad guys were, I explained to Mr S, because in this play they were all French. Fortunately the players didn't attempt frenchy accents, but the costuming showed they were effete and self-important and pompous, in case you didn't get that. It was a very bare-stage, back-to-basics production that featured the one actor as Henry V who played Prince Hal last year. Everyone else was played by the absolute minimum number of players, all in multiple roles as the cast of thousands, which works particularly well in this play. Also some amusing cross-sex casting (or whatever that is called), like the same person playing the Princess Catherine and the Boy who attends the ruffian common soldiers. The dialect parts of stereotypical Welsh and Irish (I think they left out the Scot) were played more as rich-panoply-of-character parts. Lots of spear-carriers, running around the backstage to come through again in different costumes with more lines.

But the chief theme of this play seems to be God Is On Our Side, which does not go down well lately. Since King Harry seems to have some doubts about that, the playwright has conveniently used his Deus Ex Machina to frame an historical episode that proves it. Does Harry really believe all that divine right of kings stuff? Maybe that's just how he rolls. But does the playwright believe it? Right at the beginning he shows the Archbishop setting up the whole expedition as a political distraction to keep the aristocracy from appropriating the church's lands, which makes his detailed case for Harry's right to the French crown entirely self-serving. Is the audience supposed to be convinced by this? or by the historical fact of the victory?

I got a distinct Stephen Colbert sort of impression from all this god talk, like if you believe that, maybe you'll believe this: after his unexpected victory, Harry falls in love at first sight with the French princess. Yeah, right. For certain values of "love" that were current four to six hundred years ago, maybe. And likewise, for certain values of "god", What Is was on his side, in this best of all possible worlds. And then at the end of the play, the Chorus tells us it was all for naught, with the next generation. WTF? During our discussion on the way home, I was reflecting that our modern expectation of realistic characters was only just being invented at the time it was written. The purpose of the play was maybe more like the story-panels of a stained glass window than like a modern novel.

So then I came home and read all the French bits over, which had taken me so much by surprise, in the Quality Paperback edition of the complete plays. This also conveniently included the passages from Holingshed's history that Shakespeare pretty much lifted straight. It costs no more to borrow the very best.