Saturday, January 31, 2009

Henry V - Performance Log (January 2009)

Henry V
Directed by Davis McCallum
The Acting Company
At the Guthrie Theater
Minneapolis, MN
January 28, 2009

In a promotional video on the Guthrie Theater's web site, actor Matthew Amendt, who is currently playing King Henry V in The Acting Company's touring production of Henry V, says he thinks the play is about Henry's "leadership," as opposed to his being a "great hero" or "monster." Christian Conn, an Acting Company teaching artist who flew in from New York to work with St. Paul Academy and Summit School's Shakespeare classes, saw the show and over lunch the next day mentioned to me that the production was really about "leadership." Prior to the performance, to which we took 117 students this week, we attended a pre-play discussion with Staff Director Ian Belknap, who told the audience that The Acting Company's production would focus on "leadership."

Well, I'm not one to ignore a clear talking point, but the Acting Company's production doesn't hammer, explicitly, on the leadership theme; to suggest that it does is like saying the Olympics has a lot to say about sports. Gratifyingly, though, the Acting Company's Henry V does have a tremendous amount to say about theater and from this emerges an implicit definition of leadership, and a very interesting Henry.

1. Director Davis McCallum has taken seriously the Chorus's request that the audience let the play and company engage its "imaginary forces." Upon taking our seats we are greeted by a sturdy, convex, dark wooden wall, about 15 feet high ("May we cram within this wooden C the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?"). At first I thought the whole wall would be pulled backward when the play began, giving the actors room to recreate the vasty fields of France, but no. The 12 cast members, who play 40 roles, are limited throughout the performance to a semicircular space roughly 25 feet by 15 feet. It feels a little like watching Shakespeare in your living room (if your living room is dominated by a tall wooden wall, a rectangular table on wheels, and a couple small stepped platforms). The set, designed by Neil Patel, makes it plain that there will be little to distract us from the characters and, by association, the actors.

The costumes, designed by Anita Yavich, also emphasize the theatrical experience. Because everyone but Amendt plays multiple roles and because McCallum keeps the action moving along at a quick pace, the transitions actors make from character to character need to be … um … seamless. To this end, the costumes are mostly monochromatic (brown and gray to match the wall) and modular. St. Paul Pioneer Press critic Dominic Papatola wrote that they "look as if they were rejected from some Star Trek spin-off," but he's being deliberately unkind. The traitor Scroop becomes the Dauphin in the next scene? He just slips a teal sash over his English tunic. An English noble becomes a commoner, like Nym or Bardolph, by simply unzipping a sleeve or two or a tunic. The zippers are key here as both design elements and facilitators of the actors' quick changes. Combined with the puttee-like wrappings on the soldiers' legs which suggest WWI and with breastplates worn into battle which suggest a more Medieval period and with Henry's Darth Vader-esque gauntlets which defy placement in time, the visible zippers add a modern touch, blurring the production's setting, again shifting the emphasis to the characters.

Yes, it can be a bit of a chore telling people apart. Freddy Arsenault, for example, plays five characters ― Scroop, the Dauphin, Macmorris, Bedford, and Williams ― and minor adjustments in costume only make that more difficult. What to do? Well, I would argue that the Acting Company actors act. And further that the costumes, like the set, intentionally emphasize the acting because their monodesign makes what the actors are doing the most important distinguishing factor between the characters. And finally that this is a good thing. Consider the old saying, "the clothes make the man." Here, if you're essentially wearing the same clothes as the other guy, it's up to you to establish your self ― no relying on the fancy chartreuse pantaloons and violet doublet and wrought leather gloves the costume designer slaved over for you.

So, with the distinctive but muted design approach, the Acting Company has created a production that spotlights the text and celebrates the way that actors bring it to life, relying on how Shakespeare's language shapes character and the audience's imagination.

2. As the design elements seem to be subordinated to the characters in Henry V, so the play's characters seem to be subordinated to Amendt's Henry. Look at the blocking. In almost every scene, Henry is placed at the center of both stage and characters. His costume is a bit more expressive, subtly differentiated from everyone else's, his physical presence a bit more dynamic. This Henry tends to swagger, his arrogance reflected in both tone and movement. He rolls around the stage, chest out, shoulders back, claps men on the shoulder, winks, or stands stiffly erect, evaluating situations. He's not charming; he's not common; he's not imperious; he's not patriarchal. He's a bit of a chameleon, but not in a calculating way. I didn't see him as a Machiavellian hero. In short, he's a man, a young man, complicated, slightly different at different times with different people or in different situations, capable of both ruthless violence and tears.

In addition, despite what the Bishop of Canterbury says of him, Amendt's Henry is not a rhetorician. McCallum makes this clear in one specific instance and in a general way. In the specific, Henry is responding to the French ambassador in Act 1, scene 2. When he gets to the capping couplet ― "And tell the Dauphin / His jest will savor but of shallow wit / When thousands weep more than did laugh at it" ― Amendt pauses just prior and silently counts out syllables in the air with his fingers. This consciousness of crafted language punctures the rhetoric and sets the tone for a king who has a complicated relationship with the ceremony of his position. In general, the lofty speeches ― his response to the tennis balls, St. Crispin's day, his defense of kings to Williams ― all avoid linguistic grandiosity in favor of honest emotion and directness. His words don't soar, although they are felt. Although I love Branagh's approach to Henry's language, which tends to swell with the movie's soundtrack, I really enjoyed Amendt's take. His Henry is more of a military man, nor is Amendt afraid to reveal Henry's ruthlessness. It struck me how far we've come from Richard II, Shakespeare's man of eloquence and inaction, clearly the antithesis of the Acting Company's Henry.

3. As before, I looked for a moment that shaped the production, a reading or directorial choice that stands out in uniqueness or interpretation. In The Acting Company's Henry V, I will remember two. First, I loved the way they put together the traitor scene. As the Chorus explains that Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge have betrayed the king, we watch the three of them pour a drink for Henry and add a vial of poison to it. Then as Henry seeks advice about punishing the man "that railed against our person," Scroop delivers the cup to him. This is a scene in which Henry is slyly alluding to his knowledge of their traitorous behavior, salting his conversation with dramatically ironic words like "execution," "capital crimes," and "I know your worthiness." The poisoned drink turns his lines "We consider it was an excess of wine that set him on" and "If little faults proceeding on distemper / Shall not be winked at, how shall we stretch our eye / When capital crimes, chewed, swallowed, and digested, / Appear before us?", into even more allusive puns. McCallum caps the scene, though, by emphasizing the personal affront to Henry of Scroop's betrayal. After Grey and Cambridge are removed, Henry forces Scroop to kneel and passes sentence on him specifically:

"Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretch, to your death,
The taste whereof God of His mercy give
You patience to endure."

In this speech, Henry has handed Scroop the poisoned cup, and the word "taste" directly enjoins Scroop to drink from it. He does, and then is carried from the stage, screaming, as he dies in agony. It's an arresting moment not only because it is so violent (in plot and in reaction) but because it shows us Amendt's Henry is a man of action, willing to get his hands dirty, not just sit back and pass sterile judgment.

McCallum repeats this later in the Agincourt battle. After the bit in which Pistol has captured his rich French gentleman, the scene shifts to Henry who is not sure how the battle is going, and when he hears the French remounting an attack, he commands that "every soldier kill his prisoners." Amendt then moves to a French prisoner and breaks his neck.

As an aside, has anyone written about the rise of the from-behind, head-twist, broken neck move that has become the dominant mode of underling villain dispatch by our vigilante heroes like James Bond, Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies, and Kiefer Sutherland in TV's 24? No, I haven't gone back to see if these particular heroes employ this manoever, but I have noticed that the move has become something of a cliché in action films. It's minimum violence, violence without blood, which is why we often see its use relegated to taking care of henchmen. The move projects strength, superiority, and none of the challenge reserved for final protagonist/antagonist conflict. Henry's use of it here associates him, I think, with the modern film action hero although it may just be an innovation in contemporary stage fighting technique like the now ubiquitous use of martial arts. But it's use is also about efficiency, and the directorial choice ― Henry kills! ― once again associates concrete action with the play's rhetoric.

More interesting is the prisoner Henry kills; it's the same man Pistol spared (for 200 crowns). This puts Pistol in the same group of rebuked former friends occupied by Falstaff and Bardolph. And it also establishes more of a reason for Pistol's unrepentant exit an act later, when he vows to return to England and be a thief. Both moments, the prisoner's execution and the rebuke of Pistol, expose a subtext for Henry, amplifying his complicated relationship with the "ceremony" of kingship. (In his soliloquy, Amendt removes his crown and holds it before him, asking "What art thou, thou idol ceremony," making the crown the symbol of ceremony, a much more concrete and precise image than the rhetorical apostrophe I took it for. )

4. So is The Acting Company's production of Henry V about leadership after all? Isn't leadership about turning words into action, either one's own or others'? Perhaps. I find the term too general, however, to define Amendt and McCallum's Henry. Isn't Olivier's patriotic Henry one definition of leadership? Isn't Gil's consummate politician Henry one form of leadership? Aren't all the heroes, monsters, Christian kings, and terrorists variations on leadership? Kings by definition are leaders. Even Richard II or the young Henry VI teach us something about leadership, by the example of its absence. What I liked about The Acting Company's Henry is that he is, above all, a man. Not an icon, not a symbol, not an object lesson about how to turn a misspent youth into a successful political career. Watching this Henry, I felt I understood him. I didn't necessarily like him, but I understood him. And I especially liked that he was not swept away by a lot of unnecessary production effects. (The occasional cannon blast here is simply provided by the actors toppling the big table onto the floor.) This is a purist's argument, but The Acting Company pulled this off with only three necessities: the text, good actors, and the audience's imagination. The beauty of Shakespeare is that that's all he really needs.

Logged by Randall
Photo (l to r): William Sturdivant as Westmorland, Robert Michael McClure as Gower, Matthew Amendt as Henry V, and Freddy Arsenault as Bedford. Photo copyright: Michal Daniel.

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