BWW Review: Appalachian Agincourt, Hillbilly HENRY V from Cohesion
"Make that good," commands Maria when Feste, the clown in Twefth Night, says something that sounds preposterous. I had a similar reaction upon hearing that Cohesion Theatre was going to do a Hatfields-and-McCoys-style Henry V. I was in a mood to call bluffs. I had to see whether they could make that ridiculous premise good.
Could they? To some extent.
The relocation of the action (so Alice Stanley and Jane Jongeward, the directors, inform us) puts all the characters physically in 1882 Tug Valley, between Kentucky and West Virginia, the period and place of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. The costumes (by Heather Johnston) and the weaponry seem time-and-place-appropriate to that setting. And that, for better and for worse, is as far as the relocation goes. The script does not seem to have been altered to make this a fight over anything but the historical Henry V's claim to French lands, and even though the costumes contain not a single plate of armor, the French nobles still discuss their suits of armor. In other words, there is a mismatch, fairly typical for resituated Shakespeare, between what the script says the play is about and what the setting, costumes and props force it to be about. The modern theater critic must accept such discontinuities or forego reviewing Shakespeare almost altogether. The Bard isn't performed much in doublet and hose these days. You have to think about what you might gain from the substituted setting.
First and foremost, what you gain here is a drastic rereading of the lines. When the words are delivered with a Southern twang, they come across dramatically differently, much as wood will look different with different stains and varnishes. This is apparent from the first speech, by the Prologue, here recast as the Storyteller (Lance Bankerd, pictured above), the familiar plea that the audience will enter into the theatergoer's grand bargain with any play: that it suspend disbelief and accept the limited resources of the stage as representing the elements of the story. But here the prologue comes across less as a plea and more as an invocation of the very things the Storyteller admits we cannot see: the two mighty kingdoms, the ocean separating them, the horses "printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth." There is something about the Southern accent designed to coax fantasy out of an audience that standard middle American or King's English accents do not possess. Likewise, when Henry (Zach Bopst) feels his way through the moral dilemmas he confronts (whether to go to war, how to treat traitors, the moral responsibilities of a king who leads his nation into war, how a conquering army is supposed to behave toward the vanquished), we discover that that accent and phrasing are perfect for capturing the process of thinking things through.
Many of us, myself included, will mentally default to Laurence Olivier's phrasing from the 1944 movie and more particularly the album that was made of it, still available commercially, with Olivier voicing both Henry (whom he played in the movie), and the Prologue and various other roles (whom he did not). Or our ideas of these speeches may come from Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film or even the 1990 Christopher Plummer recording, in which Plummer delivers all the speeches that Olivier recorded and others, backed with William Walton's lush music from the 1944 film. The differently-accented delivery of the same lines in this production does not begin to square with any of these earlier readings. It is a rediscovery, a rediscovery in service of a different mission.
The mission is to use Shakespeare's text for an anti-Shakespearean task. Shakespeare was out to glorify Henry and his campaign. Shakespeare may have recognized some vexed issues surrounding Henry, but we always know where Shakespeare comes down in the end, beating the drum for English glory. Olivier, whose movie, for all its artistry, was also a piece of British war propaganda and financed as such, deviated not at all from Shakespeare's outlook. And Branagh, while he certainly toned down the glory and focused, where appropriate, on the mud and the blood and the gore, still makes of Henry a national hero, possessed of real religious belief and real modesty.
Cohesion's production, by contrast, is out to deconstruct that whole picture, and largely to reassemble it showing Henry in a much less flattering light. It starts immediately after the Storyteller's initial pitch, with two characters Shakespeare denominated the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely (apparently given different names in this production) discussing and then presenting to Henry the legal case for his French claim. The language is obscure at best, made more so because the essential information (that Henry's claim is controversial because it reaches him through a female progenitrix whose power to transmit it to him depends on a choice-of-laws problem) is only tangentially referred to (the progentrix, Isabella of France, several generations senior to Henry, not even being named). Branagh treats it skeptically (by presenting the bishops in a close two-shot and making their palaver seem like malevolent nonsense), but he also shows Henry taking it seriously and in good conscience. Here, Henry's reaction seems harder to gauge. He may be asking himself whether the claim is plausible rather than whether it is true.
We get a stronger early hint that this Henry has more bloodthirst and realpolitik about him than Shakespeare had in mind, when (without any sanction in the script) he shoves aside a squeamish executioner and personally participates in the execution of the three traitors suborned to murder him at Southampton. This is reinforced later when, as retaliation for the French killing of the boys guarding the supplies behind British lines at Agincourt, he orders all the prisoners killed, both acts being understood as contrary to the laws of war. (The historical Henry did issue the order, probably out of fear that the very numerous prisoners would break free and join a French counterattack on Henry's rear.) Pro-Henry enactments have traditionally shown him issuing the order in anger at the killing of the boys. The Cohesion Henry seems to be issuing the order off-handedly and cold-bloodedly, making use of the French provocation as an excuse.
And if there be any doubt as to the Cohesion view of Henry, there is the extended treatment of his courtship of the French princess Katherine (Micaela Mannix).
The way this production handles the Katherine business is perhaps the most striking thing about the performance. In any staging, the play makes no scruple about the fact that the marriage is a term forced upon France as part of a surrender, in order to bring about a dynastic consolidation. Nonetheless, I have never before seen the courtship scenes at the end of Act V presented other than as romantic comedy. Not here. Here Katherine visibly regards Henry with visceral distaste, is struggling not to be kissed by him, and the whole thing comes across as the prelude to a rape. (All without changing a line that I could determine.) Henry would be blind not to see how she feels about him, and his proceeding with a sunny demeanor and lines about his love for her, as he does, can only result from a profound lack of interest in her feelings. By now we recognize him as willing to do almost anything in pursuit of his own and his country's interests, and not a nice guy.
Shakespeare gives the Chorus - the Storyteller - the last word, and in that final speech Shakespeare faces a challenging task. He wants to send his audience away happy with the spectacle they have just witnessed. The challenge comes from the fact that everyone in Shakespeare's audience knew what came next: the death of Henry still in his youth, the premature ascension of his (and Katherine's) son Henry VI to the throne, the son's troubled reign (subject of three plays Shakespeare had already written and his audience had already seen), and the loss of the France possessions Henry had fought so to preserve. The Storyteller acknowledges all this, and then, without further ado, signs off, with a syntactically awkward plea for the audience's applause. The way Cohesion stages this speech, Henry is standing behind the Storyteller as it is delivered, listening to the Storyteller, and when he finds out that everything he achieved was in vain, he collapses to the floor. It is a stunning moment.
I'd add just a word about how the Battle of Agincourt is played. It must be emphasized that Shakespeare got his history wrong. He pictured Agincourt as a chivalric combat of conventional armies which Henry's forces miraculously won in a rout. The reality was that this was a clash of French mounted armored knights (the previously dominant technology) and the emerging technology of English longbows. An arrow shot from a longbow could stop, if not penetrate the armor of, mounted knights, by unhorsing the knights after their un-armored steeds fell, and also by killing them through their visors. After the three days of rains which had preceded the battle, an unhorsed knight was trapped in the mud, and easy prey for an archer also equipped with a war-hammer. As employed by British archers, battle-hardened in previous Welsh wars, the longbows therefore wrought a massacre of the men wearing armor.
You will not learn about this from Shakespeare, who presents the results as simply miraculous. Olivier and Branagh knew about the longbows, and Olivier at least was fairly accurate about how they were deployed. But Branagh, though he depicted what the longbowmen and their volleys looked like, still emphasized hand-to-hand fighting (which did occur at the end of the historical battle), playing up the fear and the chaos and the death - but also the individual valor that the real battle's arrow volleys had actually largely rendered irrelevant. The Cohesion production follows in the Branagh footsteps while changing the killing technology, with an extended gun battle that descends into bloody chaos. But the lopsided total fatalities in the battle go back to appearing, as in Shakespeare's conception, miraculous rather than inevitable - and puzzling, for two reasons. First, there is no technological disparity: everyone is packing guns. Second, the upshot is not really borne out by the count of the "French" versus the "English" bodies on the stage, so far as I could make out.
When everyone gets killed, but somehow only one side dies, that's a headscratcher for the audience. But it's almost an inevitable byproduct of having not enough actors to depict much in the way of armies and moving the play to an era when both sides had comparably lethal technology. Here then is one place where correct period dress -- plus longbows or some kind of advantage on one side only -- might have helped.
There's a great deal more that could be said, including how non-traditional casting has led to, in this instance, a female-dominated cast in a play with only four female speaking parts, how doubling has led to a near-breakdown in the distinguishability of characters, and about how the play navigates some of the other big issues the directors, in their program note, point to (the value of monarchy, the legitimization of violence, the justifications, if any, of state-sponsored killing). Also about the use of Appalachian ballads, mostly about death, to underline, in a manner in keeping with the re-siting of the play, the grim world-view that informs the production. But those comments I must leave to others.
Clearly, there is much to admire in this staging, which leaves the audience with plenty to think about. Though I'm not sure they "made good" (in Maria's sense) their choice to move the play from Agincourt to Appalachia, the line readings in a Southern accent assured it wasn't a pointless exercise. And though the rethinking of the underlying play could have been done just fine without the Appalachian business, the rethinking is solid and fascinating in its own right.
Thus, as I am too often forced to say, if you want to catch it, you need to hurry. And you should want to catch it.
Henry V, by William Shakespeare, directed by Alice Stanley and Jane Jongeward, through March 26 at United Evangelical Church, 923 S. East Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21224. Tickets $15-$20, at https://www.artful.ly/store/events/11249. Gunfire, stylized violence.