Saturday, December 10, 2011

Henry Five by Five

Tonight, three friends and I saw a senior thesis production of Henry V with an all-female cast. We were really excited to see it; we are English department academics who enjoy theater, love $hakespeare, and are interested in feminist-gender issues. And, in many ways, it didn't disappoint; several of the actresses were very good and no one was terrible; the script was cut heavily but it worked (with a few exceptions that made me sputter incomprehensibly); the aesthetic was provocative and interesting; and, the real thing theater has to do, the story done got told.

But the production as a whole just bizarre. Now, I like bizarre. One of my favorite productions of all time was a pretty BDSM version of The Duchess of Malfi. I enjoy people doing weird and wacky with theater; the medium not only allows, but also calls for it, so bring it on! But that production's aesthetic was clearly motivated by the text, and by issues of characterization and theme that the text brings up. This production's aesthetic, while a lot of care went into it, did not seem motivated.

The actresses were most costumed in black and grey, with color accents to denote what group (blue French, purple English, pink pub crowd, green enlisted soldiers) the character belonged to. Boots, fake tattoos, and metallic accents like chains and studs also dominated the English, who were supposed to appear "hard," I think. The French wore ripped tights, lace, bows, and sparkly stuff, even going so far as to put glittery love-marks on some of their faces. Bras and bra-straps, corsets, hotpants, and other typically feminine garments were highlighted. In short, the costumes were sexy and aggressive; most characters looked like Punk Barbies. The music went along with this--girl rock like "I Kissed a Girl," "Hollaback Girl," "Girls (Who Rule the World)."

But the direction (in general) didn't seem to want to touch any of the issues that this casting/costuming brings up--fetish culture, sexual objectification, homosexual relationships, etc. They just went ahead as if it was a normal Henry V. Nobody even kissed on the mouth which, c'mon, if you're going to go ahead and pander to titillation by costuming someone in lycra pants and a studded patent leather brassiere, at least make them kiss! 

So, all of that was pretty weird. And then came the Battle of Agg-in-court. At which point, I stopped taking notes because all I was doing was staring with my mouth open, scribbling circles on the page. 

The Battle of Agincourt (pronounced "Ah-zhin-koo-ur") is the major plot element of Henry V. It's when King Harry leads his men, exhausted, scared, outnumbered 3-1 by the French, to a resounding victory and conquers France. Yippee! (Sort of.) (If you overlook a bunch of stuff, like the ethics of conquering and Harry's dubious position on the English throne anyways and also what's all that stuff about giving God the glory for a bloody battle in which tons of people died?)

This battle of Agincourt was basically a dance-fight. Think strip club-meets-Fight Club, women down on their hands and knees snarling at each other, cat-walk cat-fight. The music began loudly and suddenly, and the entire cast was out on the floor, the English and French dance-killing each other with their dance-kicks and dance-punches and deadly grande jetés. (Which gives "Sweet moves, Napoleon!" a new double meaning.)

Now the dancing was cool. I freely admit that. It was fun to watch. And I can imagine a couple of ways in which this could have been more integrated into the theme of the play. If their costumes had been a little less blatantly stripper-ish, and the acting had created a stark divide between a female-dominated civil society and the unleashed aggression on the battlefield (I guess here I'm envisioning bland, sneering, icy cold women who transform into animals and Amazons); or, I guess, if Henry V had been set in two warring dance-studios. But as it was, it was distracting and unreal.

The one time where the dance fight started to win me over, I admit, was when Henry has defeated a circle of French enemies who then crawl over to her and begin to grasp her clothing and drag her down; that was pretty evocative.

I think the biggest problem I had with this production was that, while the aesthetic was defined, a clear and recognizable concept wasn't. This play, which deals with issues of betrayal, nation-making, leadership, masculine aggression, and class, does not have many women in it. Most of the play occurs in very gendered spaces--the king's throne-room, the battlefield. Casting only women brings up a whole host of issues that could make some interesting stage-time, such as:
  • Do women in leadership roles use similar leadership strategies as men? 
  • How do women display and enact aggression and violence? (Like cats? Really?)
  • Do female soldiers create "band of brothers" bonds like male soldiers are supposed to do? What would a "band of sisters" bond look like?
  • What does our culture tell us about how women act when they are betrayed, or when they betray? (The somewhat gendered word "backstabber" comes to mind.)
  • How does a woman court another woman? Does that add to the awkwardness between Harry and Kate at all? Could that be why Kate is reticent to kiss Harry?
I had a ton of other quibbles, too, like why the hell would you cut out all references to St. Crispin's Day in the most famous speech in the play which is known as the St. Crispin's Day speech, and yet leave references to Welsh leeks and other things that are equally irrelevant and generally unknown to modern society? Can't you just trust that, if your actors are good enough to sell the leek fight between Fluellen and Pistol, that Harry will be good enough to sell St. Crispin's Day?

One thing I gained from this production, though, was a discovery. The boy! The boy might be the moral center of this play that is so morally uncentered. And what a fabulous boy she was . . .

*My title is a reference to Faith, a character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The actresses in this production were dressed sort of like her, and "five by five" is her favorite thing to say.

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