William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language.
There is nothing equivocal about this. It isn’t like Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer in the English language. There is no argument about it.
He is. The—greatest—writer—in—the—English—language.
No one can match his insight into the human heart—or the pyrotechnics of his language.
And, in Shakespeare’s time, his most popular plays were an eight-play story cycle of history plays: Richard II; Henry IV, parts 1 and 2; Henry V; Henry VI,parts 1, 2, and 3; and Richard III.
Once again, these were his most popular works. There were like a biopic mini-series of the era.
These plays are not much performed in our era, with the notable exception of Richard III—everybody loves a funny monster. They are certainly not performed as often as the plays that are burned into our collective consciousness: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,and so on.
The reason for this is that the audience in Shakespeare’s time were much more familiar with the characters from English history. It would be the equivalent, for us Americans, of plays about Washington and Jefferson and Madison—through to Lincoln and FDR—and ending up with the Kennedy and Bush dynasties and the Clintons.
So, here in the greater Ithaca area, we are fortunate indeed that the Ithaca Shakespeare Company (ISC) is performing the entire cycle. They began the project back in February 2015, and it will wrap up this November.
The ISC’s artistic director, Stephen Ponton, who is a Shakespeare scholar, has cut the meta-story arc down to five plays, one for each king. Ponton has characterized the meta-storyline as “The Original Game of Thrones.”
In the Richard II playbill he wrote: “Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays may be his greatest single achievement. Taken together they form an astonishing epic adventure that can rival any modern fantasy or adventure epic—and was a major inspiration for most of them.”
It is worth mentioning that the inspiration to do the meta-play cycle was to commemorate some Shakespeare anniversaries: 2014 was the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, and 2016 is the 400th anniversary of his death.
Now, as for Henry V, what to expect?
Henry V continues the story of Prince Hal, who we met in Henry IV. Hal is a feckless, alcoholic ne’er-do-well who sobers up, becomes king, and launches a big, unnecessary war to distract everyone from domestic troubles.
(And, boy, is it hard not to think of former president George W. Bush in our own era. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In advice worthy of George H. W. Bush, Henry IV, in his last words, tells his prodigal son, “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”)
Not having read Henry V, and with a deadline looming, I was like a slack student desperately turning to CliffsNotes. I read the chapter on Henry V in Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and an essay on Henry V in the Pelican Shakespeare series by UCLA Shakespeare scholar Claire McEachern.
I learned that Henry V is a strange concoction: a wild, rousing war story and a romantic comedy. The war is ended by the brokering of a royal marriage between young Henry and Princess Katherine of France. This seems, to me, something that only Shakespearecould pull off.
Harold Bloom, for his part, characterizes Henry V as a patriotic pageant, but he suggests that Shakespeare wrote it with some degree of irony. I also learned that Shakespeare had to be careful. We take freedom of speech so cavalierly here in 21st century America that we sometimes forget that this is not the norm. Of Shakespeare’s playwright colleagues, Bloom wrote: “When Shakespeare thought of the state, he remembered first that it had murdered Christopher Marlowe, tortured and broken Thomas Kyd, and branded the unbreakable Ben Jonson.”
As for Henry V, Bloom quotes the 19th century English critic and essayist William Hazlitt, who characterized Henry as “a very amiable monster”—although Bloom himself calls Henry “a great Shakespearian personality.”
Professor McEachern writes: “Henry V is both the capstone and the keystone of Shakespeare’s engagement with the English history play.”
We shall see.
Frankly, this is Unknown Territory for me, Faithful Reader—and I’m guessing for you, too.
• • •
I visited a Henry V rehearsal on Feb. 3.
I drove there with Ithaca Times film critic Bryan VanCampen, who is playing the Bishop of Ely in the production. Ely is one of two bishops who manipulate Henry into invading France in a ploy to protect Church property.
It was the first rehearsal of the cast and crew at the Hangar Theatre. They had been rehearsing at their smaller venue, Fall Creek Studios, until then.
A young stage manager, Ivy Stevens, led a tour of the Hangar. Backstage, it is a dreamlike world of dolls, trees, artificial foliage, ladders, vacuum cleaners, boots, wires, power tools, first aid kits, catwalks, coiled rope, pianos, and—my favorite—those emblematic dressing rooms with the long mirrors and rows of bulbous lights.
I met the actor Michael Donato, who played the title role of Henry IV in the last play and is co-directing this production with Ponton. He told me that this is the biggest ISC production in the five years he’s been with the company.
Ponton arrived, and the company split up, Ponton directing the cast on the main stage, and Donato working with the cast on scenes in the hallway.
The third critical member of a kind of directing triad is Nick Shuhan. Shuhan played Prince Hal in Henry IV and plays the title role of Henry V in this production. He is also the fight choreographer.
And there is an incredible amount of sword fighting in this production. Often the entire stage is taken up with multiple swordfights.
I couldn’t help but think how demanding it would be to take on both roles and how appropriate, as Henry V was a hands-on warrior-king who actually led his troops in battles.
It was an amazing thing to see. The stage would be covered with actors doing a battle scene, and Shuhan would have them first do the scene without swords at “walking speed” (a kind of slo-mo), then at normal speed, and then add swords.
Then the cast would do these elaborate battle scenes with swords at half-speed, over and over again. It was like watching a piece of film on a Moviola. Then they would do it full-speed.
And the swords were real swords—big, heavy steel things. Naturally, they are not sharpened, but they remain potentially dangerous objects.
It occurred to me how physical this play is, how demanding these sword battles are. Nick Shuhan joked that it was “gymnastics for all of us, including myself.”
• • •
Despite the chaos of the first day on the set, I managed to talk to both directors, Donato and Ponton, who are fun people to hang out with.
Donato told me, “This is a full production. We have 28 actors, some who are playing more than one role. There is going to be full period costuming and full battle scenes with real broadswords and real daggers. The idea is to put on as big a production of Henry V as is possible to put onto this stage.”
Speaking about the story, he said, “We compressed the story down so that it fits into approximately two hours. And that’s a challenge, because it’s such a wonderfully rich story.”
I mentioned the neo-romantic comedy ending, and Donato said, “It is quite funny. The character of Katharine, princess of France, is quite warm and funny. And the romance they arrange to put together is actually quite touching.”
Donato is more enamored of Prince Hal than I am, and he elaborated, “Another great storyline is the personal development of Hal from a new king into a battle-seasoned, confident monarch who not only takes another country by conquest, but knows how to win it over such that, after the war, he’ll be able to govern. … It’s not just shock and awe, but win their hearts and minds.”
Of the richness of the play, he said, “There’s plenty of comedy … and lots of wordplay. … There’s mourning over the loss of everyone’s favorite character, Falstaff. … There’s a lot of good people who die in battle … but at the same time there’s the triumph of people of good character.
“It’s got a lot of notes, a lot of colors … a lot of storylines to hold people’s interest,” Donato continued. “The play moves along very fast. I don’t think anybody is going to feel it’s dragging. If people are thinking about whether to go, and they think, ‘Oh, a history play. … I’m not gonna understand it.’ [Or,] ‘It’s like medicine; it’s boring.’ Oh, my God, are you gonna be surprised.”
• • •
I managed to get in some Quality Time with uber-director Ponton too, who told me:
“I think Henry V is a mix of so many things. There are these great violent epic battle sequences. There are the great speeches. There’s the romance. There’s the comedy. There’s the poignant aspects of the toll the war takes … and there’s the Chorus, which is a very meta-theatrical element. So I think it’s this really rich mix of different things … that makes it a great experience.”
Ponton also told me some specifics about why this production will be so interesting:
“First of all, it’s a huge cast, which is not something you see very often in theatre around here. We’re going to be doing a lot with the light and sound capabilities of the Hangar and doing a lot of switching of the staging to suggest different locations throughout the play. It’s going to be a very exciting theatrical experience … in addition to the richness of the play itself … so come see it!”
• • •
To conclude here…
I have written before that the ISC’s summer performances at the Cornell Plantations are the best thing that Ithaca has to offer in the summer. And, it occurs to me, that I could argue that the ISC’s winter performances at the Hangar Theatre are the best thing Ithaca has to offer in that bleak season.
For those of us who love theatre, it seems to me that the ISC’s performance of Henry V at the Hangar is a wonderful opportunity to see this rarely performed masterwork. We may not get the chance again for a long while—perhaps not in our lifetimes.
This is a lively introduction to a crowning masterwork by the greatest storyteller the human project has yet produced.
Henry V: the Port of Mars opens at the Hangar Theatre, 801 Taughannock Blvd., on Friday, Feb. 12. For performance dates and tickets, visit ithacashakespeare.org. •