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STRATFORD, Conn.--A brand newqartistic director has taken the helm at the American Shakespeare Theatre (AST) this summer. He is Peter Coe, a 52-year-old native of London and a man of considerable Shakespearean experience. To inaugurate his tenure. Coe has chosen to stage Henry V, a work offered here only twice since the AST began in 1955.
In 1963 we got a middling traditional production. In 1969 came a sardonic Brechtian version placed in our own time--a fascinating show, but a failure. Now Coe has avowedly set out to rely almost wholly on the words and the audience's imagination (as the text itself repeatedly states), and to avail himself of a physical stage and props approaching Elizabethan simplicity. Coe has thus echoed the assertion of Schoenberg, high priest of atonal composition, that 'there is still much good music to be written in C major,' and of Mies van der Rohe, the renowned architect, that 'less is more'--and he has won.
To effect his plan Coe assigned the set and costume designs to Robert Fletcher '45, who worked on the AST's first two shows and a couple more since then. Fletcher has chosen to continue the wooden panelling of the auditorium's side walls across the front of the theatre to create an Elizabethan tiring-house facade. A flat Tudor arch in the center is symmetrically flanked by two doors. Up above is a sizeable gallery that can be curtained, with window openings at both sides. There are a few modest decorations--trefoils and four-leaf flowers, along with a blue-and-gold fleur-de-lys curtain for the French court scenes.
All this affords maximum fluidity, as well as plenty of versatility at the hands of an inventive director--which Coe clearly is. For example, while the Third Chorus describes the 'fleet majestical' on its journey from Hampton to the French coast, some ropes and some wooden props held in a V-shape give us the rigging and bow of a rolling and creaking ship. The instant the words proceed to the king's 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends,' the wooden structures turn into a quartet of ladders to enable the soldiers to scale the wall of Harfleur.
Henry V itself concludes a tetralogy that covers 24 years of English history. The three plays that come first--Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV--are far superior as works of art; but even third-drawer Shakespeare is pretty wonderful stuff. According to the standard view, Richard was a legitimate but incompetent monarch; Henry IV was capable but doomed by having usurped the crown; and Henry V was Shakespeare's conception of the perfect sovereign, a hero-king with legitimate title.
When the play was first done in 1599, the defeat of the Spanish Armada was fresh in everyone's mind. In our time, the prevailing attitude toward the play was largely conditioned by Laurence Oliver's 1944 film version, made as a morale booster for war-torn Britain. The Henry acted by Olivier here is the only really first-rate performance among his five Shakespeare's play. He omitted the conspiracy plot, Bardolph's execution, Williams' challenge about the responsibility for war, the king's threats of rape and pillage and his order to kill the prisoners-of-war, and the references to Richard's deposition and (in the Epilogue) to Henry VI's loss of everything. Then he added some lines from Marlowe's Tamburlaine, and hired a cast of thousands to stage an exciting Battle of Agincourt, virtually borrowed from Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky.
Sure, the playwright was penning propaganda to some extent (as we find in plenty of great drama from the 15th-century Everyman through much of Ibsen to most of Brecht). But he was also doing a good deal more, for Shakespeare is rarely as simple as he is often made out to be. There are ironic subtexts in the play; and the dramatist includes inglorious aspects of war as well as unbecoming traits in Henry's character. The Bard gave us something far more complex than a cardboard king of diamonds, as more and more people are coming to realize--including myself, since the last time I wrote about the play. Just as people have in recent weeks been arguing over whether Israel's June 7 bombing of Iraq was defensive or offensive, so people have in recent years questioned whether Henry's invasion of France was justifiable or necessary.
At any rate. Henry is the heart of the play. With nearly a third of the total lines. Henry is the fourth-longest role in all Shakespeare. Even though director Coe has pruned the text to yield two 75-minute acts. Henry's part remains mostly intact. So much depends on who plays him.
One of the company for whom Robert Fletcher designed costumes in the AST's first season was a little-known young Canadian actor who played Antony in Julius Caesar and Ferdinand in The Tempest. His name was Christopher Plummer. The next year he portrayed Henry V both in Canada and Scotland--a stint that catapulted him to stardom, and a performance I have always regretted missing. For the past two decades Plummer has merited inclusion on any list of Plummer has merited inclusion on any list of the dozen finest actors in the English-speaking world. Like Guinness and (for a time) Brando. Plummer has been able to efface himself completely when immersing himself in a role: his Pizarro in The Royal Hunt of the Sun and his work in the title role of Arturo Ui can never be bettered.
It was therefore a real coup for Coe to entice Plummer (whose Macbeth he directed years ago) back to the AST after a 26-year absence. While the historical Henry V ascended the throne at 26, Plummer is today roughly twice that age (51 or 53, depending on your source). It would be idle to expect him to recapture that youth for which the French dauphin insults Henry with a present of tennis balls. With more than a dozen important Shakespearean parts under his belt, not to mention other major classical roles. Plummer remains at the height of his phenomenal vocal control and gestic skill; so one is willing to overlook the discrepancy in age.
The clarion voice is there when needed, but Plummer wisely draws on it only sparingly. This is a more reflective Henry than we usually see; we not only hear him speaking but also feel him thinking. He is warmer, too; and we are spared the chilly detached efficiency that can make Henry a Fortinbras or Octavius writ large. This king is not merely admirable but actually likable. In short, Plummer gives us Harry as well as Henry. And the reigning king even betrays vestiges of the unrcined prince Hal from the two previous plays, as when he flicks tennis balls to a couple of courtiers, leaps up into the arms of his uncle Exeter, or delivers 'Forgive me, God' as a kind of self-conscious jest.
Coe solves one thorny problem by reordering the dramatist's text. He builds up lots of audience sympathy for the servant-boy (most winningly played, in both English and French, by 13-year-old Peter James), and then has a Frenchman wantonly stab the lad to death atop a supply wagon, which moves offstage. Then Henry enters with the boy's corpse in his arms, and says. 'I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant'--whereupon he orders his men to kill their prisoners, which occurs earlier in the text. All of this makes the king's most reprehensible act understandable as spur-of-the-moment revenge.
The director dealt with another problem by persuading Plummer to play not only Henry but also the Chorus, who columniates the work with six arias that bridge the gaps in this epic tale and apologize for the shortcomings of the stage. More important, however, is the Chorus' role, not as the playwright's mouthpiece, but as the 16th-century public's general view of Henry. This popular consensus is far from identical with the man Shakespeare drew in the play proper, and the difference is undercut by having Henry describe himself. In fact, it would be so embarrassing for Henry to deliver the Fifth Chorus that Coe omits this speech entirely! In 1956 Plummer had another actor to undertake the Chorus, as should be true of any production of this play. The difficulty is that there's nobody within a hundred miles who can speak these choruses as beautifully as Plummer.
Coe has on his first try assembled a pretty good company for the supporting roles. Best of these, the play's second-longest part, is the captain Fluellen of Roy Dotrice, whose one-man show Brief Lives on Broadway and at Harvard was one of the milestones of 20th-century acting. With an impeccable Welsh accent Dotrice has a grand time being blunt, prickly, contentious, and pedantic.
Graeme Campbell rants nicely as the bragging toper Pistol, whose tavern cronies Bardolph and Nym are sharply limned by Raymond Skipp and Norman Allen. (These two double as the soldiers who converse with the disguised king in a night scene far too brightly lit by Marc B. Weiss.) Aideen O'Kelly is a passable Mistress Quickly and a better Queen of France.
In his explication of the Salic Law (somewhat abridged), Paul Craig correctly avoids turning his Archbishop into a comic Polonius (one mistake in the Olivier film), but is too bland later doubling as Captain Gower. Pirie Macdonald '54 ably doubles as the conspiring Scroop and the Scottish officer Jamy. And Robert Stattel is a commendably solid Duke of Exeter.
The roles of the French nobility are considerably trimmed, but Coe wisely avoided the common temptation to make them effete ninnies, which would significantly lessen King Henry's achievements. Edward Atienza would do well to rid his King Charles of lapses into the Maurice Evans tremolo; but it is effective, when he calls the roll of French nobles from the gallery, to have them line up in the shadows below clad in full armor and helmet, with their backs to the audience.
Peter Alzado does not yet speak verse well enough to warrant being entrusted with both the Duke of Burgundy and the herald Montjoy. But Isabelle Rosier is an unalloyed delight as the 19-year-old princess Katharine, whom Henry woos with inadequate French even while wearing the correct French motto of the Order of the Garter embroidered on his leg riband.
However accoutered and however old, Plummer plumbs this plum of a role as few could at any age. So audiences and actors alike should cry thanks for Harry, England, and Saint Chris.
[The AST's production of 'Henry V' continues in Stratford through August 2. The drive to the AST grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and three-quarter hours at legal speeds, via the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 86 and 91, and the Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 or 31. Performances in the air-conditioned theatre tend to start promptly at 2 and 8 o'clock. There are facilities for picnickers on the premises.]
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