Monday, January 28, 2008

Deconstructing Harry

Leslie Banks opens Olivier's 1944 version of Henry V.

O, for a Muse of fire - to light a fire under the subdued staging of Henry V being offered by the Actors' Shakespeare Project! The production has gotten raves, with critics often pointing out that Shakespeare conjured the "vasty fields of France" in a "wooden O" (nearly) as humble as the Harvard Square basement in which the ASP performs. Yes, only the literal "O" on the floor of said basement has a big fat pillar sprouting right out of it. I know "a crooked figure may attest in little place a million" - but shouldn't I at least be able to see said figure, if not the million?

I worry that obscuring its productions architecturally is becoming something of an ASP hallmark. But truly, only rarely is the play itself obscured, as I'm afraid is the case here. If last season's Macbeth felt somehow pointless, this Henry is all too pointed: it plays for the most part as a calmly rendered lesson plan. And the lesson? In a nutshell: war is hell.

And yes, war is hell - no argument from me, or from Shakespeare, on that score. But, horrible as it is to hear in certain precincts of Cambridge, war is also glorious, and a zillion quilts and vigils can't change that. In fact, the kind of victory conjured by Henry V - particularly in its famous St. Crispin's Day speech - all but defines glory. There's no getting around it: in Henry V, Shakespeare has created the most stirring piece of war propaganda in history.

Yet he simultaneously subjects "war" to one of the most devastating critiques imaginable. This particular act of aggression, Shakespeare is careful to point out, stems from both the scheming of the Church (which is only too happy to distract the King from its own reform) and a direct insult to Henry's masculinity: the Dauphin sends him as a diplomatic "gift" a load of tennis balls (as in "here are some balls, since you haven't got any"). Can any true greatness spring from such a foundation? Alas, Shakespeare tells us, yes it can, even if the deeper moral cost is all but incalculable. Harry's declaration of war coincides with (or perhaps causes) the death of his ex-comrade Falstaff, who, as Harold Bloom would have it, represents all that is most authentically, if ignobly, human about us. And the campaign soon cuts down more of his cronies - in fact, the king even acquiesces to the hanging of his old friend Bardolph. At the same time, Harry becomes all but inhuman in other ways - he begins with banners flying, but is soon threatening innocent townspeople with rape, and eventually slits the throats of defenseless prisoners in a paroxysm of vengeance. And yet he emerges as a hero to those happy few at Agincourt, and even gets the girl, proving he has balls indeed (Molly Schreiber and Seth Powers seal the deal, above).

But shouldn't we be used, by now, to Shakespeare operating as his own contrarian? Isn't, indeed, this part and parcel of his "universality"? To be sure, the contradictions are so thick on the ground in Henry V that the play can give you moral whiplash - rendered all the more piercing because Shakespeare redacts his hero's inner voice. There are no soliloquies for Henry, despite his being placed in the most extreme moral positions, until very late in the play (and even then, half his speech is Henriad boilerplate along the lines of "heavy lies the head, etc."). This is highly unusual for Shakespeare, and lays down quite a challenge for any production, not to mention its lead actor: we must be satisfied for the most part with Henry's public speech, his voice as the State. But does he exist outside that voice, or within it, or at all, anymore? How is he reacting to, or forgiving himself for, the deaths of his friends? How is he registering his own moral descent?

These questions must strike to the heart of any production of Henry V, but the Actors' Shakespeare Project doesn't attempt to answer (or even formulate) them. Normi Noel's production is worth seeing as a thoughtful, well-spoken rendition of the text, but it never takes up the gauntlet Shakespeare has thrown down to his interpreters - indeed, this version plays as a kind of limp feminine "twin" to Laurence Olivier's famously patriotic, superficial film from 1944 (which deleted most of the troubling subplots from the play). Of course Sir Larry was trying to face down Hitler with his version, so he gets a pass on its revisionism; and I suppose Ms. Noel is trying to face down the Bush administration (which trust me, I hate as much as the next girl) - but somehow, that doesn't seem as compelling an excuse for dodging the play's content. Didn't Kenneth Branagh somehow manage the trick of deconstructing Harry after Vietnam (above left)? Surely some similar balance still exists after "shock and awe," but Noel doesn't find it.

As a result, the production is admirable, but never compelling. It doesn't help that only five actors double and triple their way through the required cast of thousands. To their immense credit, they distinguish just about every role, and manage the French (if not the Welsh) accents well, and in one good moment run off as the nobility only to run right back on as the rabble. But all the doubling also renders some juxtapositions obscure; the same actor plays Henry and Bardolph, for example, which makes sense as literary, but not as dramatic, comment, and the doubling of Williams and Pistol muddied a few key exchanges at Agincourt. Other whipsaw changes in scene and mood - from the vasty fields of France to the royal boudoir, for instance - are rendered all the more wobbly by actors who've just tossed off their chain mail. And while sensitively handsome newcomer Seth Powers certainly looks the part of Henry, he charts no arc in a role that demands one; he comes on pensive, as if he's already heard that Falstaff's dead, and stays that way till he's in Princess Katherine's arms (he does take a time-out for a solid rendition of the St. Crispin's Day speech). More outward power matched with inner doubt would be more the thing, methinks. There are better performances around him, particularly Ken Cheeseman's creepily decrepit Charles VI, Paula Langton's wry chaperone to Katharine, and Doug Lockwood's reliable comic timing in his roles as Nym and Gower.

But then there's that pillar. I'm half-onboard the ASP's commitment to unusual spaces around town, but really, their Harvard Square digs, at least as configured here, have limits you just can't get around: for long sequences, I was watching Henry's back, as he conversed with someone else who was blocked by the pillar. To hell with the "brightest Heaven of invention" - I'd settle for an unobstructed view!

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