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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

'Henry' Made Anew; Hayes and Cast Transform Original Text

Author: Kate DeForest Arts Editor

I have found it to be extremely helpful, in going to a production of any one of Shakespeare's plays, to read the text beforehand; it's not that the plays themselves are terribly confusing, but what people do to the them often is. However, judging by quite a few of the more recent productions I've seen, there seems to be the assumption that the audience necessarily must have read the original text, and can compare that text to the production. The recent production of "Henry V," seems to have paradoxically assumed much prior knowledge, as well as complete ignorance, on the part of the audience in regard to the original text.

"Henry V" is the eighth and final play that Shakespeare wrote chronicling medieval English history. It begins where "Henry IV" left off, as young Henry V, or King Harry as he is known in the text, has ascended to the throne, leaving his wilder days of carousing at taverns behind him in favor of creating a strong monarchial presence. King Harry proves his mettle as a young ruler by invading France (under dubious justification, but one that is true on paper: by citing the law of Salic land, which prohibits the female inheritance of certain lands), conquering the nation at the decisive battle of Agincourt and marrying the king of France's daughter. This is the basic plot; there are two additional subplots that run throughout: that of a group of common soldiers/pickpockets and certain dialogues between Catherine (the king's daughter) and her lady-in-waiting.

However, Chris Hayes' production managed to put on a play called "Henry V," that had almost nothing to do with King Harry. Hayes turned the original text into something quite different, cutting out all subplot, divvying up the chorus piecemeal and using seven separate actors for the role of Henry, both male and female. There were no distinctions between class and state, the role of Henry delineated by the passing of a red and gray raggedly woven scarf. He took away the historical context and for the most part, the viewer would have no idea that Henry is a dynamic character. Hayes, with the exception of the Canterbury's speech concerning the Salic laws, has turned the play into an entity that has no sense of history, a creature that lives only in the present.

The play was built upon the premise that the actors were a group of refugees who spontaneously broke out into "Henry V." The concept itself is rather confusing and brings many questions to mind, even after one takes away the pragmatic considerations, but one kept resurfacing in my mind as I was watching:

Why choose to put on "Henry V" in this manner; why this play in particular? It was apparent that Hayes wished to make a very anti-war production, though in a different way from the mud and blood Kenneth Branagh film version. But why choose to cut the play's ironic subplot concerning Pistol and LeFleur and the rest, which so nicely contrasts the heroic plot, and provides a foil against which to judge the actions of Henry as leader and evaluate his ruling ethic?

The motivation behind cutting the subplots was, I believe, partially resulting from logistics; "Henry V" is a play of considerable length, and the members of the company had only so much time to rehearse, and partially because there would be reasonable concerns that the characters of the plot, the common men, would not be taken in as serious a manner as such a jingoistic production would demand. I suspect Hayes did not want to fall prey to the possibility of undermining his own intent. In this way, the production was rather conservative, streamlining the action and taking few risks concerning audience interpretation, leaving very few areas of gray.

However, as problematic and sometimes confusing as the cut was, it had, among many accomplishments, the distinction of being memorable. The message was clear, the tragedies of war span across every segment, from aggressor to innocent, none are immune. The final scene culminated in a dramatic shift from the actors portraying the English victors singing praise to God in an outward facing circle to the defeated French (and perhaps to the refugees themselves), collapsing one by one into a mass of fallen bodies in the center of the circle. And, despite difficulty in the text, the quality of the acting was engaging unto itself, as many of the speeches within the play are enjoyable and meaningful without the accompanying context.

Almost without exception, the acting was among the best I've seen at the College. I think much of the finesse displayed by the ensemble was guided by Hayes' expertise in Shakespearean Method acting. Of the many roles in which the original intended gender was ignored, Emily Wasserman '02 as the King of France managed to play the character so well, that, though no modifications had been made to the words, she was believable and dynamic as the King, her words bearing the regal and stately cadence of royalty, as well as conveying the concerns and fears of a ruler under siege. Likewise, the female Henrys lost none of the authority of the male Henrys, and were given many of the most galvanizing speeches, including the decision to give the violently graphic call to the governor of Harfleur to accept defeat to Alaina Buckland '03.

To hear a woman deliver the lines, "In liberty of bloody hand shall range/ With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass/ Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants," is unsettling beyond that of which the words convey. And yet, the focus remained on the delivery of the language, which was done with clarity and force.

For the most part the strongest speeches were matched with actors of the same caliber. When Adam Sewall '03 confronted the traitors Scroop, Grey and Cambridge (Scroop and Grey both played by female actors) his physical presence was as intimidating as his booming voice. Again, the fact that females were playing what were traditional male roles worked in favor of the text; when Sewell took Scroop (Joya Scott '03) by the hair and threw her prostrate upon the ground, there was an added unsettling intensity because seeing violence against a woman is very much a contemporary cultural taboo. The one speech that didn't live up to the words themselves was the eloquent and rhetorically dense St. Crispian's day speech.

Hayes' production seemed more of a work of the moment than a work of any lasting form. If he were to direct "Henry V" again next week, I would think it would continue to evolve, eventually ironing out some of the incongruities that caused much of the audiences' confusion.