English Shakespeare Company

at the Auditorium Theatre

A big bearded man shows up at the beginning of the English Shakespeare Company production of Henry V wearing a black tuxedo and looking a little like Orson Welles hosting Masterpiece Theatre. He’s the Chorus.

He says he needs our help. “This wooden O” of a stage, he admits, can’t possibly encompass the full terror and sprawl of Henry’s triumph at the battle of Agincourt. There’s simply no room for the men and arms, the horses and the blood. He therefore begs our indulgence. “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” he asks. “Think when we talk of horses that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth. / For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, / Turning the accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass.”

In other words, use your imagination.

Now maybe you looked through the schedule for this year’s International Theatre Festival and noticed that the prestige event of the whole, month-long extravaganza is the English Shakespeare Company’s Wars of the Roses epic: a compilation of seven Shakespearean history plays–of which Henry V is one–covering roughly 100 years of medieval British mayhem (from murdered King Richard II to murderous King Richard III) in something over 21 hours. And you thought to yourself, What do I need this for? English audiences may find the panorama of royal treachery edifying, but these plays have no bearing on American lives and history. And most of them aren’t even all that well written. They’re time-bound. They don’t possess the resonance, the subtlety of vision, the sheer wisdom of the best Shakespeare plays. They can’t offer the transcendence of a Tempest or the poetry of a Lear. So why bother with them?

The answer’s implied in Orson Chorus’s plea. The Wars of the Roses may not be profound or universal, but it’s a fabulous chance to use your imagination. To settle into a time and a place and let it engulf you. In this sense, its foreignness, its anachronism, and its incredible length are virtues: The Wars of the Roses lets you go very far away for a very long time.

Of course, the trip wouldn’t be nearly so much fun if the ESC and director Michael Bogdanov hadn’t already done some fairly brilliant imagining of their own. The epic, of which I’ve seen only the first four parts–or 12 hours–so far, is performed in a manner you might call Focused Eclectic, characterized by very precisely controlled clashes of period and style. In Richard II, for instance, the arrogant, effete King Richard affects gorgeous dressing gowns that seem to place him in the first quarter of the 19th century, while his pragmatic, determined opposition wears businesslike Victorian black.

The contrast in their haberdashery triggers an explosion of implications, associations, and ironies–particularly in the famous scene in which Richard’s hauled down before the victorious Henry Bolingbroke, for the purpose of giving up his crown. Wearing a sumptuous green robe and crepe blouse among all those morning coats and starched fronts, Richard’s revealed as the original Oscar Wilde–not because of his purported homosexuality, which, in any case, is played down here–but because he shares Wilde’s tragedy: an existential artist whose great work consists of creating and re-creating himself over and over again, he’s so absorbed in the artifice of himself that he can’t perceive the reality–the earnestness, as it were–of Bolingbroke’s threat. Bolingbroke, in effect, is his Marquess of Queensberry, and Pomfret Castle his Reading Gaol.

Michael Pennington’s Richard evinces a sweet blindness that I found myself missing when Pennington turned up in Henry IV, parts one and two, as Bolingbroke’s shrewd, politic son, Prince Hal. Still, there’s a fascinating sort of transmigration occasioned by Pennington’s two roles. It means that we see Bolingbroke stealing the crown off one head only to confer it on the same head in another persona. Which is poetic justice.

And more: it’s not saying too much to suggest that this Richard is Christ crucified and this Henry V Christ triumphant. What we’re seeing in these four plays–and what Pennington emphasizes by means of his double casting–is the passion and resurrection of a nation.

Still, neither Bogdanov nor Pennington indulges in patriotic pieties. Like Shakespeare himself, they allow us to see Hal the Machiavellian–taking up and discarding friends, inventing wars to keep the people busy, using the threat of rape to coerce his enemy into surrender. A consummate politician, Hal never speaks to individuals, but directs his words outward to the audience at large.

Any way you look at it, the Henry IV plays are the doldrums between Richard II and Henry V: all they really do is mark time with battles and jokes while Hal grows up. Fortunately, there’s Falstaff. Shakespeare stuck the great, fat, cowardly knight into these scripts to keep us from realizing that nothing much is going on–and Bogdanov takes full advantage of him. In fact, Bogdanov takes full advantage of anything he can lay his hands on, working hard to crack the centuries of accumulated stodginess and reverence that have grown up around these plays.

And he succeeds extremely well. Richard II offers stretches of bitchy satire; Henry IV, Part One, the most extravagantly, silly visual jokes. And Henry IV, Part Two, contains an extraordinary extended bit involving several drunk old men that’s unquestionably among the most charming things I’ve seen on a stage.

The success of that scene is due largely to the skill and rapport of the actors involved. Barry Stanton makes a blustery, cunning Falstaff. Clyde Pollitt is marvelously foggy as the country justice named Shallow. And Roger Booth carries himself with a paradoxical grace as the hefty, thoroughly plastered Davy.

John Castle runs stunningly from the cruel sobriety of Bolingbroke to the slimy cool of the hoodlum called Pistol. June Watson endears herself as the innkeeper Mistress Quickly. And Andrew Jarvis makes such a strange, driven, dangerous character out of the French dauphin that I can’t wait to see what he does with a real villain like Richard III.

The pivotal, perfectly calculated costumes are by Stephanie Howard; the at once utilitarian and evocative sets by Chris Dyer. It’s too bad more people didn’t get to see them with me last weekend–there were a great many empty seats. Even so, the crowd that was there gave a standing ovation at the end. Like those who followed Henry V to war, they considered themselves “we few, we happy few.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lauren Deutsch.