Henry VI Part 1
Tuesday night I went to see Henry VI part 1, again at the large outdoor, Englestad theatre. I was especially excited for this particular show because not only had I not seen any of the Henry VI plays on BardVenture yet, I’ve never actually seen any of them, ever. So this would be the first play added to my personal canon on the trip.
For those unfamiliar with the history cycle, the three plays that depict the reign of Henry VI show a period of intense turmoil and instability. The first part deals with a war in France, the second part with a domestic insurrection, and the third part deals with a civil war for control of the throne. The historical Henry VI was actually less than a year old when his father died and he became king, but Shakespeare as usual played fast and loose with historical veracity in the name of creating a better story. In Henry VI part 1, the king is not an infant, but an adolescent boy.
The play focuses on the attempt by the French to oust their English occupiers. France had been conquered by Henry V, the young Henry’s father. But after the premature death of Henry V, the English find themselves unable to keep the French under their yoke. The nobles fight amongst themselves while the French mount a rebellion led by Joan La Pucelle (Joan of Arc).
As I said in my previous entry, the productions in the Englestad theatre tend to be more traditional, period pieces. As such the production was a pretty straightforward production in terms of aesthetics. There was a lot of cross-gendered casting, with a couple of the English nobles and several soldiers on both sides played by women, and there was one contemporary pop song played right at the very end of the first act. Beyond that, the style of the production was solidly traditional.
It’s unsurprising that Joan was the highlight. It’s an amazing part, at least until the last act when she stoops to faking a pregnancy to avoid execution. The actor who played her was incredible, equal parts prophet and mercenary. She was so mesmerizing that I was ready to take up arms and fight for the liberation of France myself.
The history plays as a whole can be intimidating and difficult to stage, because Shakespeare wrote them for an audience that knew its own history in ways that we do not. So, in the same way that an American audience seeing a movie about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t need every particular detail about the period explained to them, Elizabethan audiences could’ve watched plays like Henry VI part 1 with comparative ease. For those of us who are novices in the realm of English history, even those of us who know our Shakespeare fairly well, we can get lost in the weeds sometimes on some of the minor points of 14th century politicking. This production, however, was extremely easy to follow. I went in a little worried since I’d never seen it before and hadn’t read it in maybe two years, but there weren’t any parts where I felt like I was lost. For a lot of the production, I felt like I was watching an action movie rather than a bit of classical theatre. I mean that as a compliment.
My only small qualm, and perhaps it’s a silly thing to nitpick, was with one element of the cross-gendered casting. In general I love cross-gendered casting; the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen was a woman. But there are times when cross-gendering a role, especially when the actor isn’t cross-dressing, but rather playing the character as the opposite gender, that it renders small parts of the play incomprehensible. The Duke of Bedford was played in this production by a woman, Lisa Wolpe. Rather than having her cross-dress — like she does as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, more on that anon — the director chose to have the Duke of Bedford become the Duchess of Bedford, and had Lisa play her as a martial woman. It sounds cool, but in the play there are moments when the English mock the French for having a woman in their army, which becomes kind of silly and nonsensical when there is clearly a woman leading part of the English army. It’s a small qualm but one that took me aback for a moment.
The next morning I attended the seminar, which that morning focused on Othello and Henry VI Part 1. I was surprised to hear pushback from the folks participating in the discussion against Henry VI part 1. There were a few comments about the festival trying to be “politically correct,” and a number of people were upset about the cross-gendered casting, but not for the same reason I was. People said that they couldn’t believe that some of the women playing soldiers could possibly be warriors, and that the appearance of women wielding swords took them out of the action of the play. It was hard for me not to speak up and ask them if they had the same problems believing in fairies, ghosts, or witches when it came to other plays, or if those were easier to accept than a 5’3 woman wielding a sword in battle.
Again, there were more positive and insightful comments than there were insulting or reactionary comments, but I was struck by how different the audiences at different theatres can be. What seemed to me an entirely straightforward, traditional and historical production was still too radical and avant-garde for some of the subscribers attending the seminars. It made me happy that I don’t have the responsibility of navigating the minefield of pleasing enough subscribers consistently to keep an enormous theatre like that running. It gives me anxiety to imagine it.
I should say that the dramaturge moderating the discussions, Kate Moncrief, did an amazing job of addressing those questions when they arose. She managed to defend the important positions that the festival has taken, while not telling people they are necessarily wrong for disliking some of the choices that have been made. She was impressively diplomatic in the way she dealt with some of the more problematic questions, validating people’s opinions and rights to love and hate whatever they choose, while also refuting the idea that the festival was making any decisions that were not artistically valid, or trying to be “politically correct” in their casting.
The Merchant of Venice
Before leaving on this trip, I knew almost nothing about most of the shows I would be seeing. I may know the play, or the company producing it, but I’ve been largely ignorant of the individual shows. I didn’t know in advance, for example, that the Othello that I saw on my first day in Utah would be in a small studio theatre or that my friend Brian would be playing Iago. With all the logistics and scheduling that have gone into this trip, it’s been more than I could I keep track of just to remember which direction to drive in most days.
The exception to this is The Merchant of Venice which I saw at Utah on Wednesday evening. I had known about this show since January because the actor playing Shylock, Lisa Wolpe, had given a talk at the annual Shakespeare Theatre Association conference on the text work she had done with the folio to prepare for the role. As a text nerd, I had been mesmerized by Lisa’s talk. I’m no stranger to textual analysis, and I love the Folio, but the depth of Lisa’s analysis and the inferences she drew from the most minute details was fascinating. I could have listened to her all day.
As such, my expectations were extremely high when I went to see Wednesday night’s Merchant, and the production exceeded them by leaps and bounds.
Merchant is a funny play in that all of our attention is drawn to a character with comparatively few scenes and is entirely absent from the last act. It’s hard to figure out what Shakespeare was trying to do with Merchant. It feels like Shylock took him by surprise. It’s as though he was trying to write a more on-brand comedy, a romantic fairy tale about the foolish gold digger Bassanio wooing the brilliant, cross-dressing heiress Portia and then in the process of trying to write a couple of nominal obstacles to their love he stumbled on this antagonist, the murderous moneylender Shylock, who turned out to be much more interesting than anyone else in the play.
I’m intimidated by the idea of discussing Merchant, as it is probably the most controversial play in the canon. It’s a play that addresses complicated issues and offers no easy answers. It’s no more sufficient to say “Shylock is justified in his actions because of his treatment by the Venetian merchants” than it is to say “Shylock is a cold-blooded murderer.” Both fall short of the full truth.
The biggest problem lies in the last act. After Shylock’s suit and life have been destroyed in court by Portia, the lovers plus Antonio retire to Belmont to celebrate their good fortunes. They engage in a bit of light bawdy humor and receive news that Antonio’s business ventures are all safe and profitable. Everyone’s sickeningly cheery, and it feels like it should close with a big laugh and a freeze frame like the end of a 80s sitcom episode.
It feels downright bizarre that there should be any action in the play after the courtroom scene. How do we transition from the horrific breaking of Shylock by the Venetian court to the fairytale romance of the fifth act?
Utah’s production places greater emphasis on Shylock than any other production I’ve ever seen. The play opens with Shylock and his daughter walking across the stage, being harassed by the Venetians, whose behavior throughout is reminiscent of the worst brand of fratboy rowdiness. It sets the scene for the themes of racism that will be consistently highlighted throughout the show.
What really struck me about this production in particular was how likeable Lisa’s Shylock was. Even in productions that highlight how horribly Shylock is treated by the Venetians, and even in productions that show an immense amount of sympathy for Shylock’s loss at the end of the trial scene, they rarely give us a Shylock that we like. Lisa’s Shylock was funny, almost warm at times, and his love for his daughter and his late wife was played with an incredible amount of understated pathos, and his treatment toward Gobbo was likewise warmer and more decent than I’ve ever seen before. Shakespeare does a wonderful job of humanizing Shylock, but there’s a wide gap between recognizing someone’s humanity and actually liking them.
To that end, the director developed ways of demonstrating the bond between the members of Shylock’s household. Shylock, Jessica, and Gobbo would play a kind of dancing patty cake game, showing their shared affection and understanding. Later, after her marriage to Lorenzo, Jessica tries to get Lorenzo to play patty cake with her but he refuses, showing that he intends to bring her into his own world, but never wants to enter hers. The creation of a family dynamic between the three members of Shylock’s household gives him a community to belong to, rather than existing simply as an outsider in the Venetian community.
But the most powerful and striking moment of the play comes in that troublesome fifth act. At the end of the last scene, while the lovers are dancing and celebrating, Shylock appears on the upper balcony with several Venetians who slowly and quietly remove his Jewish garb and yarmulke. At the same time, Jessica discreetly slips away from the rest of the revelers to cry and pray alone a Jewish prayer that we’ve seen before in the play. Once he is re-dressed in his new Christian garments, Shylock falls to the same prayer. The final visual is that of the Christians dancing merrily while the two Jews are alone praying and crying.
I’ve always believed that one should be uncomfortable in the last act of Merchant, that no one should be happy watching the Christians celebrate and dance knowing that they’ve just left a man broken in Venice. Having the spectre of Shylock reappear at the end of the play isn’t entirely novel, Pacino did it in his film, but this production managed to do it better than any other I’ve ever seen.
I have never seen an entire audience jump to their feet so fast at curtain call in my life.