Presented by the Actors Shakespeare Company at Jersey City University's West Side Theatre, Jersey City, New Jersey. March 19-April 5, 2009. Producing Artistic Director Colette Rice. Playmaster Colette Rice. Assistant to the Playmaster Cindy Boyle. Dialect Coach Susanna Baddiel. Music Master/Composer Anthony Bez. Costume Design Eva Lachur Omeljaniuk. Lighting Designer Paul Hudson. Stage Manager Jennifer America. Assistant Stage Manager Beth Ann Leone. Fight Director Denise Hurd. Set Design Timur Kocak. Props Master Michael Hajek. With Colin Ryan (Henry V), Patrick McCarthy (Canterbury, Bardolph, King of France, Erpingham, Warwick), Timur Kocak (Cambridge, Bretagne, Fluellen),Jonathan Hopkins (Glouchester, Scroop, the Dauphin), Peter Galman (Pistol, Orleans, MacMorris), James Rana (Ely, Bedford, Governor of Harfleur, Bourbon, Bates), Beth Ann Leone (Boy, Katherine), Colin Colfelt (Westmorland, Grandpre, Jamy, Williams), Paul Sugarman (Grey, d'Albret, Gower, Burgundy) and others.
As explicitly conveyed in Henry V, Shakespeare was well aware of the challenges he faced when attempting to retell history on stage. So too, apparently, is the Actors Shakespeare Company whose response to the challenge was to completely blur the spatial boundaries set by traditional theatre in their Spring, 2009 production of the play. The actors leapt from the stage, consistently addressed the audience, and even allowed parts of their performance to escape the view of the audience. Even though many of these methods surpass the traditional techniques that were used in the Elizabethan theatre to achieve the same effect, it appears that the company's devotion to breaking walls served as a grand tribute to the script itself, highlighting one of its most important textual assertions: that the events, characters, places, and ideas presented in this history play are "so great" they can scarcely be displayed (or contained) by the stage. In agreement with the text, the ASC didn't even try to limit its performance of Henry V to their literal or figurative spatial restraints. The result was impressive.
The ASC's Henry V spilled from the stage, apparently an "unworthy scaffold," in almost every scene. In addition to the stage itself, action consistently took place next to or in front of the eight-sided platform, a wooden structure that rose no more than a few inches from the floor. The actors played both on and off the stage, sometimes only inches from the audience; they entered and exited from all sides and angles; they claimed at least two separate backstage areas; and they fell out into the lobby.
When both the stage and venue failed to hold that "which cannot in their huge and proper life/Be here presented," the ASC pushed their spatial boundaries even further by completely removing a majority of act three's opening action from view, calling our "imaginary forces to work" at the invasion of Harfleur. The invasion's bloody details took place in a space behind the audience, completely out of sight. In turn, the audience watched a barren stage for whole minutes. They listened instead to violent battle cries and clanking swords, marked visually with only an intermittent flash of light. The result was that the ASC successfully relocated the victory to a space unidentified and undetermined.
Thus, in answer to the Chorus's question "Can this cock-pit hold / The vasty fields of France?", the ASC's answer was seemingly "no." However, they made more of an effort to say "yes" in response to the following, more specific, question: "... may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air in Agincourt?" While the company didn't try to "cram" the play's deciding battle onto the stage in full, they did allow the audience to view parts of it. Like the battle of Harfleur, the ASC hid much of the climactic battle from the audience's sight as the players fought behind the front curtain. Isolated moments of choreographed fighting did, however, occasionally burst onto the stage. Still; the scene maintained that the majority of its action should take place within a limitless, imaginary space.
One of the ASC's most interesting spatial experiments took place at the beginning of the Agincourt battle and shortly after the chorus tells the audience to".., sit and see, / Minding true things what their mock'ries be." In a stylized and poignant display of the battle's opening moments, the British, costumed throughout in deep red, stood in line back to back with the French, clad in soft blues, each soldier facing outward and into the opposite direction of the opposing army. This position inverted the classic impending battle tableau, during which opposing sides typically face each other before the fight ensues. Because the armies stood back to back and never turned to face each other, even as they began the battle, the implication was that their attacks were traveling the length of almost an entire world in order to reach their target. The ASC thus multiplied the metaphorical distance between the opposing sides and in turn created an unrestricted space defined by an unfathomable distance between them. The success of this inversion seemed dependent upon the contention that the stage space was simply not enough.
A complimentary, yet perhaps less obvious push against spatial restraints was delivered by the presentation of the chorus itself. As the play is apparently too large for the stage, so too, the ASC decided, was the Chorus for one narrator. The ASC used eleven actors, both male and female, to play the part. This choice served to magnify the production's spilling-over pattern, as lines flowed from one chorus member to the next, gaining momentum, picking up mid-line and, at times, coming together in unity--for example on the last line of the opening prologue in which all actors on stage chanted in request to the audience "... your humble patience pray / Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play." The sheer volume of the line suggested more than a request; it arguably worked as a warning that what was to come would be bigger than the theatre could bear.
Clearly defined lines between scenes didn't seem to do for the ASC either. Several scenes bled one into the next: after delivering the prologue to act two, the Chorus watched the actors of 2.1 set up for their scene. At one point, a speaking Chorus member literally touched Nym, already in character for the impending scene. Similarly, when the chorus members at the top of act three switched seamlessly into the roles of soldiers, they practically smashed the wall between the narration of 3.0 and the opening of the Harfleur battle in 3.1. In another example, as 5.0 moved to 5.1, the lights came up several beats after the scene had already begun--in the dark, Fluellen and Gower discussed the leek that Fluellen wore in his hat. The overlap signified by the purposefully late light cue nicely emphasized the serious and daunting message of the preceding chorus, which explains that Henry has refused, even at the request of the Holy Roman Emperor, to concede to peace.
Some actors played as many as four different characters, and the rapid costume changes were consistent with the production's spilling-over dramaturgy. Actors switched roles at times within seconds, sometimes with only just enough time to change hats and switch accents. Though the changes were impeccably executed, the audience could barely keep up. What we could keep up with though, was King Henry, a character the ASC seemed to interpret as more human than divine. Accordingly, he appeared to fit quite well within the spatial limits of the play. Unlike the action and setting, the ASC scarcely pushed Henry's character beyond the boundaries set forth by the literal space of the stage nor by the figurative space of the play itself. The actor who played the part did not switch characters, nor did he make an appearance in the Chorus, perhaps the biggest scene-stealer of the piece. While this casting could be read as indicative of Henry's stand-alone greatness, still, his character remained on the literal stage more than most and broke the fourth wall much less frequently. Overall, he simply gave the impression of being much smaller than the play itself
While Producing Artistic Director Colette Rice, quite accurately claimed in the program notes that the company had no "intention of either flattering or deriding Henry," Henry's character (not to be confused with the actor who played him) was surely interpreted as less than grand in the ASC version of Henry V. This claim is supported by the front of the program, upon which a famous line of text stands above Henry's picture: "I think the king is but a man, as I am." As just a "man," Henry's character seemed snugly housed within the play's confinements.
CHRISTEN MADRAZO, Seton Hall University