By William Shakespeare
Propeller (U.K.); Directed by Edward Hall
New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | Feb 29-March 4
What this assured performance of Henry V gave us above all was a forceful story. A story in which the action and the lines propelled each other forward—a sustained and considerable feat! Both served to present the legendary warrior king of the English narrative in a modern and compelling guise. And to raise old questions about power and violence.
The actors began as they meant to continue, marching down through the audience as grunts singing lustily, before taking hold of the stage, and then morphing into the chorus, and then the ecclesiastics and court attendant on their king. The configuring and reconfiguring of bodies in space, and of roles was dynamic, amped up and up by the impending crisis of the battle ahead. Within the confines of their scaffold (and the proscenium arch of the Opera House), the actors did wonderfully in projecting story out into an imaginary space they shared with the audience.
Whenever it formed, the ensemble was rousing and commanding; it indeed worked on the audience so that their thoughts could, in the chorus’s words, jump over the times and turn the accomplishment of many years/ into an hour-glass. The actors were pumped and committed to their cause: The soldiers heading towards us in their landing craft could have been heading for the beaches of Normandy. The rendition of the Clash’s London Calling served to remind us of the social status of the troop singing it. The invasion of Iraq was never far away. The songs fuelled the dynamism of the action and also the shared emotions of the band of brothers. At times the mix of patriotism and camaraderie in the songs and speeches made me queasy, bringing to mind the parades for the British war dead that pass through Wotton Bassett, lately rebranded Royal Wotton Bassett, on their way to the cemetery.
In the midst of the ensemble, the warrior King played by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart was commanding. The legend lived because it didn’t simplify him. We got the brutal warrior, the ruler with the common touch, the clumsy lover and also a diffident, even self-deprecating figure. Someone who knew what the game was all about. His chief gift is for violence though, and his bloodied half-naked figure and red-lining rhetoric before the gates of Harfleur and the battle of Agincourt did not disappoint. His once more unto the breach call to slaughter appalled.
What a contrast Mistress Quickly, the panto queen presents. Mistress Quickly and the brawling chavs and punks around her. A sorry looking lot. A pity that her scene telling of the death of Falstaff is cut; also that Queen Catherine was played by a man, and therefore largely for laughs. Taking the feminine out of the play kept it on its militaristic track. The courtship scene at the end lacked bite and felt tacked on.
Shakespeare in 1599 may have been pitching his plays higher (and drumming up support for his patron’s next invasion of Ireland); still, this audience gasped when Bardolph’s neck was broken by a bare-handed executioner, and the dead Bardolph draped on the scaffold dominated the rest of the scene. Executed for theft. Interestingly, in this performance, Bardolph is already dead when Henry enters and assents to his execution. Also, the French prisoners have already been slaughtered when Henry commands they should be slain in retribution for the death of the boys and messengers. The message seems pointed here: Henry’s fine words provide a gloss on events that have already happened, or are fated to happen whatever he does. Just like Henry, his soldiers must prove true to their warrior ancestors. He is not in command after all. Violence is. The sins of the fathers. Henry prays that he has done enough to expiate the misdeeds of his father.
It puzzled me that after the insult of the tennis balls is revealed, two drums full of balls were emptied onto the stage. And it’s not that this performance didn’t do levity well, in contrast to, and to accentuate the war. It’s just that some of the special effects, whether gory or amusing, detracted from its thrust.
Among all the striking scenes, the one that stood out for me was the aftermath of Agincourt: Henry, his soldiers, and the French herald, have all fallen to their knees in the aftermath of the battle, in total, abject exhaustion. The stillness is eloquent. The glorious victory has yet to be announced.
Several years ago, after the usual fierce contest between the Springboks and the All Blacks in which the All Blacks prevailed, John Smit the Bok captain was interviewed. After commending the victors, he said his men had done all he had asked them to. And then concluded, grimly, “it was the will of God.” This war play is theological in its conclusions too. Despite its riveting story, its conclusion seems as archaic as John Smit’s. No offence to Propeller, but Henry V is unable to tackle the violence in our world in the way we need theatre to.