I’ll be honest: I’ve seen a lot of high-concept productions of classical plays and, far more often than not, I’ve not been a fan. Too often, a director will approach some well-known text with a sense of apology, saying to his audience, “You know, I don’t really get why this show is done so often, either, so here’s a cool spin on it that’ll hopefully make it relevant!” The concept serves as justification for a script we’re resentfully told is a “classic” (Hamlet on Mars! A cross-gender hiphop Doll’s House! Love’s Labour’s Lost with Alicia Silverstone!), and is forced onto the piece from the outside-in, while the smaller, more human elements that made the piece so revered in the first place are left to freeze to death unattended in the gimmick’s shadow.
But every now and then, you’ll find one of the rarer species of conceptualized classics: a production which develops its new take from the inside-out, investing as much care and energy into illuminating the text as it is (and not what the director wishes it was) as it does bringing the concept to life. Thankfully, Jessica Bauman’s Into the Hazard, a multimedia adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, is just such a production. This is particularly a blessing since the concept itself doesn’t quite work; despite that, it still manages to be one of the most entertaining and enjoyable classical productions I’ve seen in some time.
The very first point this production makes is a good one: from the minute we enter the theatre, our attention is taken up by a large television screen that hangs above the stage. It dominates the playing space and, even during pre-show, keeps us entertained with images of war (in this case, scenes from the video game Call of Duty 4, no doubt inspired by Shakespeare’s line: “Think, when we speak of horses, that you hear them / Printing on your ass a five-streak-kill”). When the show begins, though it may be dormant from time to time, the television maintains its place in the foreground—a reminder of the inescapable nature of media these days.
Bauman’s general idea is to take the narrative Chorus role and disseminate its speeches through various forms of modern communication: the nightly news, press conferences, YouTube, etc. As she states in the program notes, this is done to highlight the inherent contradictions that exist within the script. We, as a modern, savvy, theatergoing audience know not to trust everything we see on TV or the Internet, and so we’re even more inclined to notice the rather disturbing undertones that often go unnoticed in the pride and thunder of Shakespeare’s play.
Henry V is a natural choice for this experiment in media juxtaposition. It is Shakespeare’s most theatrically self-conscious piece, and it constantly reminds us that it can only relay information about the huge events that happened, not portray them in the flesh. The Chorus is a built-in mechanism to tell, rather than show, so it’s hardly a stretch, then, to have our modern-day news outlets play the role, right?
Oddly enough, what prevents this convention from being successful (but what ensures that the show as a whole is) is Bauman’s obvious respect for her source material. Not enough is altered or moved around in the script to bear the conceptual idea out. For instance, Shakespeare obviously wrote in an age where information wasn’t so immediately accessible—to have, then, a Fox News reporter broadcast the discovery of the planned treachery of Cambridge, Masham, and Grey (here whittled down to two of the three) before the scene in which the king confronts the traitors (who are unaware of the king’s knowledge) made little sense to me. Acknowledging the reality of broadcast news in this day and age, wouldn’t the traitors have been aware that they were found out immediately?
Another strike against the concept is a general arbitrariness to the styles of narration. Since nothing in the text is really changed, nothing is then justified to have, say, one speech be a YouTube posting with toys over another. Or portraying the Chorus as a Ken Burns documentary at the top of the second half, reminiscing about the war before it’s even been fought onstage, and thus suddenly throwing into question the chronology of the piece. The concept as a whole makes its point, sure, but it doesn’t hold up to the realities it’s trying to convey. (Though, I will say, I thought it was a nice touch to having Henry watching the reality-show-style broadcast of the French scene between Princess Katharine and Alice.)
Perhaps if the flow of scenes had been altered, or more had been edited out of the video segments, the idea would have worked better. Only one time does the concept really achieve its purported goal of saying one thing while the audience notices something different. After the awkward “wooing” scene of Katharine, in which Henry comes uncomfortably close to what can only be described as kiss-rape (wonderfully played by Nick Dillenburg and Erin Moon), we see a press conference announcing their marriage. Onstage, they are both bumbling, if not angry, with each other and at the situation they are in. On screen, they are all smiles. The lovely touch of Moon then literally pulling the plug on the television screen is icing on the cake.
And it’s in mentioning Moon that I can then properly sing the praises of what works so wonderfully with this show. Though she obviously put a lot of time and effort into the concept, Bauman doesn’t forget the actors onstage. The cast is uniformly excellent, with six actors taking on the myriad roles. Moon, Luis Moreno (Fluellen, Mistress Quickly, and others) and Trevor Vaughn (Pistol, and others) are definite standouts, but David McCann (Exeter, Nym, etc.) and Scott Whitehurst (French King, Bardolph, etc.) portray their less flashy characters with aplomb, as well.
As for our titular king, Nick Dillenburg plays Henry a little too earnestly and controlled (erring on the side of woodenness sometimes), which is most likely done to manifestly contradict the references to his “riotous youth,” but one longs for a few flashes of the mercurial Prince Hal. Though comparisons between Henry V and George W. Bush (reformed party boy leading his country to war under the veneer of flags and religion) have already begun to pepper the critical landscape, Bauman and Dillenburg seem to be drawing more of an Obama parallel (young leader inheriting a troubled country). Despite my preferences for the latter as a president, it does rob the piece of some dynamics. That being said, Dillenburg certainly has some lovely moments as Henry, and his turn as the French Dauphin enjoyably showcases another aspect of the actor’s range.
Take away the great o’erhanging television screen, and Into the Hazard is one of the best productions of Henry V I’ve had the pleasure to see onstage in years. And besides, one of the underlying themes of the production is that you shouldn’t trust the media, so take note and don’t listen to me. See it for yourself and make up your own mind.
Reviewed by Nat Cassidy · June 1, 2009