Friday, July 27, 2007

Henry V

It would be easy in today's world to over-politicize a play like Henry V. The brilliance of Ed. Simone's production at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival is that he provides all the elements for a political statement but leaves it in the audience's hands for interpretation.

Art is most compelling when it leaves room for the perceiver to enter into the work and to feel and think something of their own accord. When the artist does everything for the audience, it leaves them empty and uninterested. It's why agitprop theater is so rarely effective except in the hands of those playwrights and directors who understand subtlety and understatement.

I sometimes tease my husband because when I talk about the worst shows I've ever seen (and thankfully those are far fewer than the good shows I've seen), he was involved in two of them. One of them left me cringing because it was jingoistic and devoid of any true emotions. It was like an extended propaganda show where real characterization was sacrificed--by both the playwright and the director--to a cliched patriotism.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival production of Henry V falls on the opposite end of this spectrum. Yes, all the famous lines are present. Harry exhorts them again into the breach and later stirs them to action with his band of brothers speech that has since inspired military leaders from George Washington to the modern-day Marine Corps.

However, the lines are spoken from the heart and Director Ed. Simone makes brilliant use of lighting and special effects to show us how Harry struggles behind the cold, hard commands he must issue to prosecute a war.

And yes, he wants you to draw comparisons between this highly religious king who goes to war because he believes it is God's will to do so and the current affairs found in the headlines of today's newspapers. However, it is metaphor and not exact correlation that he seeks with this production, which is what makes it so powerful.

It's a fast-moving play that will appeal to people who like spectacle with their theater. The actors and technical staff create impressions of battle scenes, flickering televisions, and huge propaganda posters that are lowered from the flies. The original pro-Henry poster is nearly three times the size of the king himself and is later replaced by a smaller, anti-war poster out of France.

However, Henry V is not simply a war play. It is also a play about a leader and what makes him a leader. Part of this question gets examined in the scenes with the friends Harry left behind. Ed. Simone brings in parts of Henry IV, part II to show more of Falstaff and the decadent lifestyle to which Harry had once subscribed.

Despite the additions, this is a play that moves very quickly. It's only two hours with intermission and the pacing throughout the show is intense.

This is a modernization that works extremely well in large part because the modernization serves the story, the story isn't made slave to a political statement or news broadcast.

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