BWW Review: Baltimore Shakespeare Factory Manufactures a Muddled, Overwhelmed HENRY V

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BWW Review: Baltimore Shakespeare Factory Manufactures a Muddled, Overwhelmed HENRY VIt isn't easy to stage Shakespeare's Henry V (1599). It's a big play: by length 3227 lines (in the top third of the Shakespearean repertory), with a large complement of characters. Structurally, it is partly built around a siege and a battle, each of which occurs onstage. There are scenes and pageantry in two royal courts. No wonder, then, the directors tend to cut the lines, scenes, and dramatis personae to what they deem manageable proportions - and that the play starts with a prologue that apologizes for the very inadequacies of staging altogether. (Delivered in gorgeous poetry, it remains an apology nonetheless.) Given all these challenges, the theatrical company taking on Henry V must be at the top of its game. And this time Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is not. It's an honorable failure, but BSF is simply overwhelmed.

Partly it's a matter of the smallness of the cast. If you ask 13 performers to perform 36 characters, you had better be prepared to help the audience keep the various portrayals straight. To that end, you do not want to have, for instance, three performers doing three lowborn characters (Bardolph, Nym and Pistol) playing a scene immediately adjacent to a scene in which the same three performers are doing three noble characters (Scroop, Cambridge and Grey), with barely a costume adjustment or pause. You are going to struggle with implausibility when the three noble characters, desperate traitors out to assassinate Henry, are arrested by two officers. You will make it harder for your audience to distinguish characters when most of the performers present as female, or when you overlook identification-markers planted right in the script (Bardolph's fiery nose). You are not going to do your production any favors when the battle scenes feature nothing much more than a few individual inconclusive broadsword combats between random cast members that give no real information about which side might be winning. (Not to mention that Agincourt, the primary battle depicted here, was mainly about cavalry and archers, and that the lopsided casualty lists handed to Henry afterwards showing a slaughter of the French and a near-total absence of British wounded or dead could not possibly have represented the sum of the kinds of individual combats shown on stage.) Theater never stops being a mimetic art, and never stops demanding some correspondence between what is depicted and what audiences can see.

Thematically, the challenge of Henry V is that Shakespeare broadcasts contradictory ideas about war. On the one hand, the play celebrates the strength and martial heroism of its eponymous leader, and takes pride in a national victory over a traditional adversary. On the other hand, the play evinces skepticism about the rationale for the war, does not shy away from acknowledging the victims of war, the children, the broken families, the wasted agriculture, even the victimization of the French princess whose marital destiny is determined by the fortunes of war. The pathos of the princess's situation is lessened when one of her two scenes, the one in which she playfully tries to increase her English vocabulary in anticipation of what proves to be her fate, is omitted. Perhaps more difficult than that is the discussion in the play about whether the princes who lead nations into war with dubious justification are morally liable for that victimization. The words are there, but somehow without visually meaningful combat, the dilemma does not come across full force.

Even the biggest success of this staging is somewhat muddled: the performance of Grace Brockaway as Henry. By this I don't mean that there is anything wrong with Brockaway's acting. From the moment Henry receives the mocking gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin and angrily slams shut the lid of the chest bearing them, Brockaway remains fully in command, with intelligent line readings and convincing engagement with the other characters throughout; and of course, most important, Brockaway delivers the Crispian's Day oration in fine form. The muddling has to do with gender. The advance publicity promised clarity; the director Grayson Owen was quoted as saying: "Our Henry is not a woman playing a man. Our Henry is a woman, ruling a country, making choices (whether for good or for ill), with all the goodness, the flaws, the doubts that humanity has to offer. Statesmanship and honor don't know any gender lines." And while I caught a couple of references to Henry by female pronouns, most of the time the pronouns were male. And Henry, who would as a female monarch be called a queen in common usage, current alike in Henry's time, in Shakespeare's time and in our own, is continuously referred to as a king. Moreover, in an era where women never married women, Henry winds up the play courting and marrying Katherine of France. So there is scant evidence of the promised Henry-as-female approach. But nonetheless one begins to ask oneself whether the other female performers playing portraying roles Shakespeare wrote as male are supposed to be playing men or women. It seems as if the audience is being pointlessly disoriented.

The performance I saw was preceded by a talk by a young scholar about Henry V as potentially an exploration of colonialism (presumably in addition to war, a subject the play has long been understood to interrogate). That hypothesis did little to convince me; since the time of William the Conqueror, royal houses in France and England alike had been trying to govern real estate on both sides of the English Channel, and the biggest cultural influence on either shore had been that the British gentry traditionally had spoken French. Henry reportedly was the first British monarch since the Conqueror to speak English day-to-day. But that aside, the cross-channel colonizing had done little to disturb the separateness of either culture to the extent that, for instance, England was later to disturb and be disturbed by the culture of India.

It has always seemed to me that a more fruitful examination of the play's subtexts would focus on the audacity of the notion that rulership of a country, particularly one like France with its own geography and language, should hang on accidents of dynastic family relationships involving foreigners. A law that would make someone from one land the monarch of another's country feels fundamentally wrong regardless of the formal sufficiency of the law invoked -- an instance of the wrongness of the larger notion that leadership of a nation should be determined by kinship to any extent. Yet dynastic accidents as legal warrant for invasion are the very gist of the argument that the churchmen make to Henry at the beginning. It is customary to stage these arguments as either cynically sophistic exercises or as antiquarian fustian, but in either case the tedious length of the analysis is treated as an opportunity for humor, and Henry is given no lines that betray his own inner take on the arguments. He formally accepts the arguments, but he could be doing so piously or cynically. Both the Olivier and Branagh reactions in their respective Henry V movies are deliberately opaque on this issue, as is Brockaway's. But it's legitimate to speculate that Henry knows full well that what he embarks upon relying upon the churchmen's talismanic argument is not the assertion of a moral right but a simple act of conquest, one more to add to the pile of them in the relations between France and England.

The Chorus's final speech asserts that the coming failure of Henry's son to hold onto these lands, a failure chronicled earlier in Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays (1591?-1592?), was the result of misgovernance rather than of the organic problem that countries accustomed to their own sovereignty do not usually remain subjugated by foreign rulers for long. There is something absurd about feudalism altogether, but particularly in this context, where the rules are being used to initiate an act of demonstrated futility: another attempt to unify France and England under a single monarchy. This production could more profitably have explored this approach.

In any event, this is one Shakespeare show that gets produced with reasonable frequency. (Bard on the Boards in 2017 listed it as Shakespeare's 12th-most-produced.) So this is not a once-in-a-lifetime chance if you miss it. Still, Brockaway is pretty good. But know she's what you're coming for if you visit.

Henry V, by William Shakespeare, directed by Grayson Owen, presented by Baltimore Shakespeare Factory through March 8 at the Kestrel, St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. Tickets $19-$24, at https://www.baltimoreshakespearefactory.org/henryv. Mild stage violence.

Photo credit: Will Kirk Photography.



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From This Author Jack L. B. Gohn