Thursday, July 20, 2017

Last night's play

I mentioned I was going to see Henry V.

I liked it, with a few reservations I'll note.

It was NOT a reset - it was a very minimal set (in keeping, I suppose, with the "you'll need to imagine this" theme of the play, as the Chorus points out.). The costumes were similarly minimal and didn't try to tie very much to any period -the English wore trousers, loose shirts, and vests; the French were a bit more formal/bit more luxurious fabrics (the French king had a stiff, almost smoking-jacket-like coat that looked like it was made of a quilted material).

Several parts were played by the same actor. In the case of minor parts, this was fine, but they had the same person playing Exeter (Henry's uncle) and MacMorris, and once or twice I was kind of "Wait, does he have the Exeter vest on, or the MacMorris one?'s been a while since I read the play). Also as is typical for our Shakespeare, some of the male parts were actually women in trouser roles. (I think there are only four female characters in the entire play? The French queen, Princess Catherine, her maid, and Pistol's wife?)

The Chorus was played by a woman, and she did very well; she spoke clearly and at an appropriate tone. They had the actors mic'ed and sometimes that leads to problems if you're someone who is used to being LOUD for an un-mic'ed stage*. The person who played Henry was very loud. I do not know if that was partly intentional but I will say at times I had difficulty understanding him because he was loud and spoke fast and shouted a lot. (I think the shouting was intentional, as I'll discuss later)

(*I would probably not do well with a microphone; I learned to project from an early age (long story but my parents put me in drama classes as an 8-year-old to try to help me overcome some of my shyness) and I continue to do that for teaching even though the rooms I am in are fairly small. I also have a deepish voice for a woman.)

One thing they did that I liked - and a lot of stage productions of this may do it, I don't know - but during a battle scene towards they end, they used a fog machine and dimmed the lights (sort of a "fog of war" thing) and it made the stage-fighting less clearly, well, staged. (The actors had swords but you could tell from the audience they were not actual swords, though I suspect if you got hit upside the head with the broad side of one, it would still hurt).

Another thing they did - after the "day was won" by the English, and the accountings of the dead were made, all the English (well, the ones still standing) mourned their dead by singing (I think it was, I am not up on the Latin Mass) something in Latin. (I caught "Domine" and I think "sine nomine" but I didn't recognize the piece....). They did it a capella. Having known some people who could act but not sing, it was striking how good they were, and it was probably the most moving part of the play (and yes, I felt that familiar prickling at the back of my eyes)

One thing that struck me: I have read that Henry V can be viewed as either a glorification of war or as an indictment of it - "War is glory" vs. "War is hell" - depending on how it is played. I had only seen the Olivier movie version before (and read the play) and so I had seen more of the "war is glory" interpretation; this one went much more with the "war is hell" view. For one thing, Henry's anger at many points (over the insult of the tennis balls, for example) seemed over the top and you got the sense the character was being played as someone immature and perhaps a bit unstable. And even the "comic" "low-life" soldiers like Pistol and Bardolph, in their tavern scene, were much less funny and much more threatening (at one point in this production, they drew swords on each other: I can't remember if that was in the original stage directions). And as I said, Henry shouted a LOT, and you did get that sense of "this is someone with a hair-trigger temper and probably should not be king" (Though then again: Seeing it all through a modern eye....times were different then. I'm also reminded of that by how confused I got (again) by the whole "ransom" business. I know I looked it up when I read the play but it still is hard to grasp given a modern perspective).

Even the famous "Crispin's day" speech came across less as a call to responsibility and glory and more as the desperate words of someone trying to rally his troops (and maybe himself too) to a doomed mission.

It's also possible, of course, that I'm older and sadder and more cynical than I was when I first read the play several years ago. (But I think partly they did go with the "war is hell" version of it)

The funniest part, probably, was the scene with Katherine and her maid trying to teach Katherine a little English....hand and fingers (Fingres!) and nails and so forth. (And actually....there's more to it that I didn't catch. I didn't make the foot/"foutre" connection - "foutre," in French, is the translation of the big-baddie, mother-of-all-swear-words in English, though I have been told, the "f" word and the "s" word are used much more casually, and seen as much less "bad," than they are in English. I DO know in Canadian French, if you really want to curse, you use (literal) profanity - you profane religious things - though again, that may also have less of the impact it once had. (And yes, in English, for many people, the "Anglo-Saxonisms of four letters" have lost a lot of their punch because of frequent use. I still don't use them, because that's how I was brought up, and I do like being able to reserve a usage of the "s word" for a situation that truly calls for it, but I do know some people throw them around like confetti at a parade)

Also, when Henry wooed Katherine - it was funny, but he also played it a bit for "cringe value" - again, perhaps, keeping with the characterization of Henry as someone not entirely in control of himself.

The various "British Isles" soldiers (Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy) were less distinctive and played less broadly than I thought they would be. I don't know if that is some kind of modern "sensitivity" (though I admit, as someone whose primary ethnicity is Irish, I would not be insulted by someone doing a broad "bog Irish" accent on stage. I'm not even insulted by "Sgt. Schulz" German, and my secondary ethnicity is German...). Fluellen I could tell mainly by his copious use of "look you" (which is in the play dialog); he didn't seem to do the p-for-b and f-for-v substitutions Shakespeare wrote. And MacMorris - who was played by a professional actor (we get a couple of Equity actors on loan for the summer) DID do a bit of an accent, but not broad. Jamy was played by a student and I suspect he may not have been comfortable trying an accent (and also, he was African-American - so maybe was concerned about the idea of "guy doing a broad stereotypical accent" more than some would be).

I will say I wish they had done a bit more costume differentiation (the fellow who played Jamy was also the French Constable and one of the other minor British parts) to tell the parts from one another.

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