Friday, April 29, 2016

King And Country: Henry V, or, Echoes And High Notes

My going-to-war crown has a cross on it.
“Oh come ON!” loud-whispered the guy two seats down from me during the final scene of Henry V. He had spent most of the evening leaning forward, arms on the railing in front of us, but now he leaned back and shook his head. “It’s a stupid FARCE!” he said to his wife with his arms folded. To which I wanted to reply: “First time ever seeing Henry Five, huh, fella?” Because that last scene—the wooing scene between Henry/Hal and the Princess of France, is a total hoot no matter how you play it. Seriously—it’s as bad-actor proof as the Pyramus and Thisbe play from Midsummer Night’s Dream—it’d even get laughs if Christian Bale did it. With Alex Hassell and Jennifer Kirby playing it, it was delightful. It’s the crowning scene in the play, and the crowning moment in Hassell’s journey from a scapegrace taking on two tavern wenches at once to a self-aware king making self-aware passes at someone who barely understands English. 
This production begins with a moment that is just as delightful. The stage is bare of all except a throne, on which sits the crown of England. In saunters Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus, dressed like a rumpled old history buff who mistakenly walked through a stage door instead of his study door. He looks around. He acknowledges us. He  sees the crown of England sitting on that throne, and holds it up to look at it—and then Alex Hassell marches on in a huff, grabs the crown out of his hand, and marches off with it, throwing a snooty over-the-shoulder look back at Davies like he’s the fly in the buttermilk. 

From that moment, you know you’re in good hands. And while it’s not on the level of Henry IV 1, this production achieves a nice balance between foolery and seriousness—with the notable exception of Pistol, who is still painfully unfunny, even though in this play Antony Byrne portrays him as a completely different Pistol from the one in Henry IV 2. If anything, this serves to highlight just how seamlessly the rest of the actors are delivering consistent characters from one play to the next. 
Especially Hassell. This is the culmination of all the work he’s done in the previous two plays, and all that work pays off here. Again, when Henry V is done as a standalone, certain choices that actors make are defined by the fact that they have to come out of this play alone. Hassell can echo and call back to and advance upon what he’s done in both earlier plays to make this Henry someone who is still learning how to be a ruler, a warrior, and a man. The mannerisms that marked his Hal are still there in his Henry, but they’re refined and more under control, like a set of potential flaws that have been forged into protective armor. It’s a different kind of theatrical acting than I’m used to—it’s a style and technique that’s more suited to television, where you use the episode to build to the series, and it’s both fascinating and revelatory to have seen that on stage. 

Especially since there’s really no connecting tissue here. Everything is self-contained, like an evening of one-acts introduced by a kindly old producer, who invariably apologizes in advance for what we are about to see. The scenes are like secular Stations of the Cross, with the betrayal scene even compared to a second fall of man, which is pretty damned presumptuous if you ask me. Also totally British.  

There is a lot of audience interaction, with the lights rising during the Harfleur speech (we’re the French) and just before Agincourt (we’re the army). Nym talks a lot about humors, and the frequency of it makes me suspect that it’s a deliberate parody of Ben Jonson. Falstaff’s death is handled poignantly, and little by little the world of Eastcheap is whittled away, with Nym and Bardolph hanged, the Boy killed in battle, and Pistol turning cutpurse and thief. Jane Lapoitaire, playing the French Queen, performs her final verbal bow the same way she made her first one, by entertaining the first two rows of the audience with what the rest of us cannot hear without the audio equivalent of a satellite dish. Seriously—you can hear your cells dividing more clearly than you can hear her.
And the ghost of Richard II hovers over everything. Henry’s plea to God not to be punished for inheriting the sin of his father along with his crown has a lot more resonance when you see the plays in sequence. You really get a feel for how awful any murder is, never mind the murder of a sovereign. And you also, if you know your history, get the very clear sense that just because God doesn’t punish you now, that doesn’t mean he won’t let you win and then take it all away from you later, or wait until you’re dead and have your son lose everything and more, like that. 
Two final notes: the scene between the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting, as they describe body parts in English and French, was sublimely hilarious, and just as uplifting as that final wooing scene between Henry and the Princess. But the one scene in this production that brought down the house was the Welshman/Irishman/Scot scene. Simon Yadoo as Jamy the Scot was as hilariously unintelligible as Brad Pitt in Snatch, and his commitment to total gibberish was nothing less than inspirational. Which was the source of the other memorable overheard comment of the night. After the play was over, as two women waited as patiently as possible on line for the Ladies, one turned to the other and said: “I wanted to see more of Jamy the Scot.”
Me too, lady. Me too. 
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So what to say about the King And Country series as a whole?  

The ensemble work throughout was stellar. Each play had its own style, but the series as a whole shared a number of recurring motifs. A playful moment with the crown. Church or religious settings, with men and women crossing themselves either to ward off evil or acknowledge a blessing. Henry V's peacetime crown is unadorned and gold; his war crown is dark ungleaming silver with a cross on the front. (God is very near the earth in these plays.) How History as a force never really ends, even though plays must. How the dead haunt the living—the series that begins with a mourning old woman draped over a coffin while a choir sings dirges, ends with a marriage attended by both the living and the dead of Henry V—the dead looking down from where the choir sang in Richard II, the living assembled in preparation for a curtain call.  
Ranking the four plays: I’d put Richard II at the top, followed by Henry IV 1, Henry V, and Henry IV 2 
What I remember as I think back: a king who loves martyrdom more than monarchy teasingly offering and then snatching away his crown to the man who will succeed him. A young prince laughing with his commoner friends. A rash husband walloping his wife’s shoulder with what passes in him for affection. “Here comes your father.” A quiet night before battle when soldiers tell the truth to a king in disguise who should know better than to defend himself by pulling rank, but does it anyway. And a woman’s body draped over a coffin while a choir from above sings three-part harmony. That’s the image that began the series, and it infected everything else I saw with the presence and the promise of grief and mortality. And—despite our oh-so-modern trust in progress, understanding, and community—aren’t those two things what History is all about?

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