Friday, January 16, 2009

RE: Henry V - Matthew Amendt video

We few, we happy few, we band of bard-ers,

Thanks to Doug for the link to the video in which actor Matthew Amendt talks about playing Henry V. I was struck by one thing he said:

"Henry's journey is a very complicated one. … A lot of people see him as a great hero; you know, we can think of Laurence Olivier's film from World War II and the Battle of Britain, or we can think of more contemporary productions from the '70s and '80s that see him as a monster ― kind of the classic imperialist power who's coming in and subjugating people."

I think students in Derek's class have also briefly considered these different versions of Henry, the heroic and the monstrous. Having just read the play, I have a really difficult time seeing the latter in the text. In other words, I think Henry V contains very little of Shakespeare's usual complicating character traits, aside from some internal "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" stuff, and that it deliberately builds Henry up in heroic (both secular and sacred) terms. It even has a Chorus, somewhat unique in the history plays, who tells us what to think of Henry in pretty certain terms: this "mirror of all Christian kings," "this grace of kings," "free from vainness and self-glorious pride," whose "liberal eye doth give to everyone" "a largesse universal, like the sun." This Chorus guy could get a job as White House Press Secretary easy.

That doesn't mean an alternative isn't there, that one can't through careful editing or imaginative allusions in character and/or set design or any other production aspect of the play bring to life a monstrous Henry. If you cut the Chorus's lines and dress Henry up to look like William Westmoreland and recast the French as Vietnamese ("Therefore, you men of My Lai,/ Take pity of your town and of your people/ Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command"), does Henry V become a comment on American military misadventure?

It seems to me that any production that evokes in Henry V a negative or cyncial view of Henry's ambitions is only able to do so successfully because of the audience's modern experience of politics and war ― from the bombing of Laos to the protection of oil wells … um, Kuwaitis … from Saddam Hussein; hence, this sort of production relies on what informs the play from outside the text rather than on what the text alone provides. Nothing unusual there. We've got Freudian Hamlets, fascist Richard IIIs, postcolonial Prosperos and Calibans, and male chauvanist pig Petruchios. I very much enjoy all of that.

So here's my question, put out to all but with special direction to Doug and Stu: if you're going to perform this play, what goes into selecting a particular vision for the play? Is it true that when we read, all possibilities are available to us, but when we see and hear, we need a coherence that selects from the text? If so, how does a director typically find a path through a Shakespeare play, especially a history play like Henry V? Does one consider the audience's cultural experience as a necessary factor in the presentation? Is the audience's experience (9/11!) inescapable? When does one choose to point directly at an extra-textual allusion, like modern costuming or a picture of Hitler hanging in Henry's office in London? And if you're going to play Henry V in production in a way that suggests an anti-war statement or commentary on, say, the American experience in Iraq, does one ever end up elevating a particular agenda over the text? Is that limitation or evolution?

Amendt says he thinks Henry V is about "conflict and leadership." What do the artists do so that the audience walks from the theater, thinking "Wow, that was a great production that explored conflict and leadership," duly impressed as they head home to watch George Bush's final speech to the nation or make plans for their upcoming innaugural parties.


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