By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
For more than four centuries it’s caught the light from the political ideologies and populist currents and counter-currents of the day.
Sometimes Shakespeare’s Henry V has seemed a veritable flag-waver of a play — an homage to military heroism like the 1944 movie version starring Laurence Olivier rallying the English troops from a white horse. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends….”
Sometimes — in doubt-filled worlds like ours — it’s been coloured by deep-seated cynicism about military one-upmanship, jingoistic claims, the whole repertoire of war-is-glorious clichés.
It’s the challenging moral ambiguities of Henry V that interest the English director Benjamin Blyth, of London-based Malachite Theatre. “Shakespeare offers us both sides; the play exists somewhere in the confusing place in between…. I don’t believe they’re mutually exclusive.” he says. The declamatory approach doesn’t appeal to him: “I couldn’t think of anything I’d hate more than be lectured about how proud I should be about being English.” But calling Henry V an anti-war play is a simplification, too. “Neither, I feel, is the play the other side of that ‘glorious war’ argument, an argument for pacifism.”
The 14-actor Blyth production that opens Thursday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church is a debut partnership between Malachite Theatre, based in the east London district of Shoreditch and Grindstone Theatre, based in the south side Edmonton district of Strathcona. The improbabilities of that cross-Atlantic liaison began several years ago when Blyth’s Edmonton-based Canadian wife Danielle LaRose was a fellow student in Grant MacEwan College’s musical theatre program with Grindstone founder/ artistic director Byron Martin. They went on to train together in Glasgow.
Collaboration ensued. As Blyth puts it, “we have a split life between two countries.”
In this, his first directorial foray into the Canadian scene — with Canadian actors led by this country’s first female Henry V (Brynn Linsey) — Blyth says he’s discovered “so many enterprising companies and people, a whole slew of really talented actors who have a real desire to work with classical stuff … maybe because they don’t often get the chance?”
Why Henry V? A problematic history play steeped in a history that is not the history of this country? Even for a couple of plucky indie companies, it’s an intriguingly risky choice. Blyth grins. “It started with the actors,” he says of his cast of 14 and their appetite, surprising to him, to do history plays, “and not just Richard III.” The Roman plays scored big, too, with the actors. So a future Malachite/Grindstone venture into the Forum with Julius Caesar, say, might be in the cards.
For his part, Blyth was intrigued by the way bloody war scenes are punctuated by comedy. Ah, and by the way the Chorus steps outside the play to introduce each act personally to us. At various times, the audience is cast as English or French lords. “You have a part to play in the sharing of the story; you’re challenged and engaged, not cut off….”
“Henry V marked a fresh start for Shakespeare and for his audience,” says Blyth of the play he argues was the playwright’s last Shoreditch production, at the Curtain in 1599, before his company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved across the Thames to the entertainment district of Southwark, and the Globe. “It was a pivotal play.”
This past summer the Malachites workshopped Henry V, Richard II, Hamlet and “some Macbeth” on the site of the Curtain excavation. “We were the first people on the Curtain stage for 400 years!” says Blyth, who plays Pistol, Falstaff’s old crony, in the Henry V we’ll see at Holy Trinity Anglican Church.
Blyth’s first experience of working with Canadian actors has been a happy one, he says. “I’ve found them more open that British actors, in many ways … a lot more ready to viscerally grow. You start with a huge emotion and then refine. At home (in England), we tend to start with the text….”
Henry V isn’t the first time the Malachites have travelled outside their home culture in the company of Shakespeare. Last summer Blyth took a company of eight English actors to China with a production of Hamlet, as part of the Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebrations. “We had no idea of how Shakespeare would translate. And it was just a shattering experience!” he says happily
“English translated to Mandarin translated to Cantonese, projected live above the stage like opera surtitles!” he reports. “What I found truly amazing was that with a 400-year-old text, translated twice, the humour, the music, the situation rang so true for the audience. We had them laughing!” The father/ daughter/ suitor dynamic of Polonius, Ophelia and her conflicted boyfriend Hamlet seemed instantly recognizable to the audience.
“They have the cult of the director in China. When we got off a 12-hour flight, 40 stage hands were waiting to be told exactly what to do! Whereas the Elizabethan approach is finding it out as you go….”
That’s what Blyth did with the role assignment in his gender-crossed Henry V. Of the cast of 14, half are female, which means that the Duke of Westmorland, for example, and the Earl of Cambridge are played by women (Samantha Jeffery and Miranda Allen, respectively). But it wasn’t a principle, the gender swap thing,” he says. “It was just that the storytelling worked best that way, with those actors in the roles.”
“I hope you forget about it while the actors are onstage,” says Blyth, who made his theatre debut, age nine, in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (“I played the servant Peter Simple, and ate a carrot onstage). “Afterwards, maybe you’ll think it’s an interesting thing that theatre can do that TV naturalism, perhaps, can’t.”
“We always try to work on a fusion between original 17th century practice and what’s immediate to a contemporary audience,” says Blyth. The music, culled from Middle English and French sources, including the Agincourt Carol, is live, played on recorders, accordion, flutes, clarinet, drums. The costumes include period chain mail and weapons.
“I’m so interested in finding out how Henry V translates this side of the Atlantic,” muses Blyth. “It challenges our perceptions of what a nation is; it challenges our idea of the world being fixed in its current map.” For English audiences, who’ve gone through the Scottish Referendum and Brexit, this will mean something different than it would to an American audience, under the barrage of outbursts from a new divisive wall-building regime.
For Canadians? It remains to be seen. And Henry V won’t be “a one-off”; Blyth promises future Malachite/Grindstone partnerships.
Meanwhile, says Blyth, we’re watching actors challenge themselves artistically, making bold choices to tell this story for the first time!”
Starring: Brynn Linsey
Where: Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 10037 84 Ave.
Running: Jan. 12 to 28