Henry V and Metatheatricality

Posted: August 16, 2010 in braak, Criticism
Tags: , , ,

I saw the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater’s production of Henry V, recently and it was…interesting. The direction was great, the performances were all generally really strong. The set was richly detailed. The concept was where I got hung up; the idea was that the whole play was recast as a history teacher teaching English history to his students, and so it became a kind of “play within a play,” with the Chorus taking the part of the teacher, and the major plot of Henry V acted out by prep school kids.

Which is okay, as far as it goes, except that it’s just such a weird thing to do.

While the idea at first seems completely counter-intuitive (who would suspect the way to make something less boring is by making it into a literal history lesson?) it does have certain advantages.  It makes sense of the Chorus, which is often a tricky proposition for a director working on Henry V.  It made the part where (I think) the Archbishop of Canterbury explains Henry’s claim to the French throne pretty funny.  In fact, a lot of the “regular” or “boring” stuff was made funny or cute by the concept.

There are places where it falls short, though; generally, when you come to see Henry V you want to hear two things:  “Once more into the breach,” and the St. Crispin’s day speech, and when you’ve presented Agincourt not as the epic battle that defined one of England’s most beloved kings, but as a couple kids in blazers playing at war with lacrosse sticks and paper airplanes, it kind of robs those speeches of the stakes a little bit.  (By which I mean, “a lot.”)

It’s also a little bit troublesome sorting out just who is whom.  The French, in this play, all wear glasses, and that’s helpful, but the Archbishop of Canterbury definitely doesn’t look like an Archbishop.  The soldiers don’t look like soldiers, the nobles don’t look like nobles, the thugs don’t look like thugs; they all look like kids in blazers.  It’s never a problem to tell what’s happening, exactly, but it’s sometimes a but of a challenge to get what it means, since the costumes are basically devoid of semantic content.

But what’s ultimately strange about the whole approach, and what’s prompted me to write this article, is the treatment of the Chorus itself, and let me reiterate my feelings on it:  it’s just such a weird thing to do with it.

Consider.  Henry V begins with the Chorus — who is not a “choral group” in the way that we usually understand them, but is better understood as a kind of narrator — stepping out onstage and just straight up saying, “Look, this is going to look like some bullshit.”  He speaks directly to the audience, asking them to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps  in Elizabethan scenography; something that was presumably necessary when you were trying to present Agincourt using five guys with sticks and Ned Alleyn in a funny hat.

From the outset, the idea of the play is divorced from its presentation; we’re asked to ignore that these are actors, ignore that there are no sets.  Moreover, we, the audience, are personally asked by the playwright to do this.  And we’re able to, because the Elizabethan sets are empty.  This is States’ scene-to-text-ratio theory:  the more text, the less detailed the scenery, and vice-versa.

To put the Chorus in a context in which he’s been literalized is problematic; he now no longer addresses us, but makes his apologies instead to his students.  The play has, instead of breaking the fourth wall, created a subsidiary reality that includes the broken wall, and establishes a new wall between actors and audience.  The approach is no longer metatheatrical in the sense that it is a play that recognizes that it is a play, but becomes metatheatrical in an entirely different sense, in that it is a play that contains a play.

The idea is further hampered by the fact that literalizing the Chorus forces you to literalize everything else — now that the figure is, instead of an abstract apologia for the nature of theater, an actual character, the entire rest of the play has to be locked into that literal approach in order to explain his existence.

(Well, probably; I suppose you wouldn’t have to do it that way — if the students, while enacting the play, could periodically phase away from their literal setting, though this is challenging to do onstage.)

The literalization of the Chorus subjects the play to the tyranny of verisimilitude, and what is so strange about this idea is that the Chorus exists for precisely the opposite purpose — to free the play from any obligation to present actual reality.  In trying to create a larger context in which the Chorus is something other than a metatheatrical function, you end up trapping yourself in that context:  the stage is not an empty space in which a play that is equal parts presentation behalf of the actors and imagination on behalf of the audience, but an actual, literal classroom.

This literality, rather than being liberating, prevents the audience from apprehending what the play within the play is; the more richly-detailed the subsidiary context — the more realistic, accurate, and complete — then the more difficult it is for us to leave it behind and imagine the battlefield of Agincourt.  No matter how the Chorus exhorts us, we can’t forget that we’re just watching kids playing at Kings and War, because everything about the play draws us back to the fact that we’re in a classroom.

All in all, I can’t say that this was a bad choice.  It was certainly the cutest production of Henry V that I’ve seen.  And, certainly, it’s always productive to try to approach Shakespeare in new ways.  I think, however, that this particular approach sacrifices more than it really offers.

  1. wench says:

    They could have put the soldiers into school sport uniforms – lacrosse for one side, footy for the other. And given the bishop a paper hat. There are schoolhouse ways you can distinguish characters.

    I suppose te profundity of the important lines you mentioned would depend on the ability of the actors to switch from mild comedy to intense emotion then back to comedy at half a millisecond’s notice. I’ve seen actors able to pull it off but that is a rare, rare skill.

  2. braak says:

    Well, they had different hats; it’s just that none of them was an archbishop hat, see? The context was internally consistent, but it wasn’t built on any outside referent; if I didn’t know that that guy was the Archbishop of Canterbury, I’d have no way of knowing that his hat was an archbishop’s hat, as opposed to a deacon’s hat. And if I did know that he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, then he wouldn’t need a hat.

    I don’t think the facility you describe would have solved the profundity problem; the fact is that no matter how intensely emotional the characters are, the context in which they were seated (and through which we can’t help but interpret what we see) was ironclad. Unless the schoolroom could literally disappear, there was no way for those cats to unstick themselves from it.

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