Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Royal Shakespeare Company: Henry IV, part 2, Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon

Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon is a project of the Royal Shakespeare Company featuring broadcasts of live performances of the RSC in movie theaters around the world.

Yesterday, I went to the West End Cinema near George Washington University in D.C. and watched the broadcast of Henry IV, part 2

Having just moved to the Washington D.C. area, I am fortunate that I discovered that this broadcast was playing at 11 a.m. at the West End -- I owe my gratitude to Twitter --not only because it wasn't exactly a hot ticket event in D. C. and because performances of Henry IV, part 2, in my experience, are rare. 

It's got to be the least popular of the Henriad tetralogy (RII, HIV1, HIV2, and HV).  It's a painful play, largely, I think, because it's a post-war story.    

On the one hand, RII tells the story of Bolingbroke's rebellion and his taking of the crown from Richard, as well as the tragic arc of Richard's story and HIV1 climaxes with Prince Hal helping his father defeat the Percy's rebellion at Shrewsbury and introduces the hijinks of Falstaff and Hal in the Boar's Head tavern world and HV tells the story of the new king Henry V uniting his father's broken kingdom by waging war in France. 

On the other hand, Henry IV, part 2 is a dark portrayal of the uncertainty experienced with the ending of  war.  I might have written "the uncertainty England experienced with the ending of war", but I experience this play as an exploration of the consequences of war itself, not just the Percy rebellion.  In this way, I find it similar to Homer's The Odyssey

In both works, certainty is a chief casualty of war.  Things are never what they seem.  Trust is fragile.  No one knows who is trustworthy -- or if anyone is.  HIV2's chorus figure is named Rumour and his dissembling right from the get go sets the tone for the whole play and illuminates the deceit, ill will, moral decay, and disease, both physical and spiritual, that dominates the play.

I think another casualty of this post-war deterioration is the play's plot.  It really doesn't have a strong plot at all.  More than a well-formed and plotted story,  I experienced HIV2 as a series of loosely connected set pieces, all dramatizing a terribly fallen world.  The tavern/brothel scenes are much nastier and are sometimes dominated by a deranged character named Pistol.  It is not as fun being in Falstaff's world in this play as it was in HIV1 and, not only are his scenes more cynical and bitter, they are also more melancholy with unexpected reveries upon old age and mortality.

It's the kingdom that Prince Hal is about to inherit.  It's a mess.  So is his relationship with his father whose terminal physical disease, deep guilt, and distrust of his son, Hal, is a microcosm for the ill condition of his kingdom and the uncertainty of what kind of king Hal will be.  The strongest drama in the play occurs at King Henry IV's death bed.  Henry comes to believe that Hal is eager for his death and can't wait to become king and he wails a reminiscence of how, in this topsy turvy world, those who were his best friends became his enemies.  His anger, pain, and howling inspire Hal to level with his father.  Hal tells his father how he's seen the crown consume his father, eat him alive, and Hal explains that he is apprehensive, not eager, to become king, and that he has put the wild days of his youth behind him.

It's all very intense. The pain.  The arguments.  The betrayals. The never knowing what's real, what's fabricated. 

It's why viewing this broadcast wiped me out.

I had forgotten how draining this play is and the intensity of the production made it all the more draining. 

The play hits so close to home.  Shakespeare (like Homer) keenly understands that the destructiveness of war only begins on the battlefield.   Battlefield deaths and injuries are bad enough, but it never ends there.  The destructiveness seeps into the citizenry, dividing people against each other.  Citizens never know what the truth is and war sows distrust, cynicism, and fatigue everywhere.  It doesn't matter when the war is fought, who the combatants are, or where war is waged.  The destructiveness of war that Shakespeare brings alive in HIV2 is universal and had no more of a sobering effect on medieval England or Shakespeare's England or on any other country at any other time than it does in the 21st century.

After all, Prince Hal sees the way war has torn his country apart and how it's devastated his father and he becomes a warrior king, leading England to war in France.   When looking at the world today, I can only conclude that there's no such thing as history.  It's one long war-filled present moment. 

I think that's what Shakespeare saw, as well. 

I would like to describe how these actors did their work, but I don't really have words for it.  I can say that I loved how the actors did something I've never been able to do: they gave each syllable of the play's words life through a wide range of vocal variation, energetic physical gestures, and deep commitment to the play's varieties of suffering.  The fact that their stage performances were filmed magnified how superb their work was, often putting me right on the stage with the actors, almost making the experience more intimate than had I seen the play live in the recently transformed Royal Shakespeare Theater. 

My next chance to see this play will be when the Deke and I find a place to live and the belongings we have in Eugene are shipped to wherever we move to.  In one of those boxes is my DVD collection of  The Hollow Crown.  It's the Henriad performed from beginning to end, produced, I believe, by the BBC.

I look forward to that.

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