Women in the trenches: Henry V steps into the hazard

Brooklyn Rail

I first met Jessica Bauman—the director of Into the Hazard [Henry 5], her sharp new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V—when, as literary manager of the now-defunct Workhouse Theater, I’d asked New Georges artistic director Susan Bernfield to recommend women directors upon whom I could call for our reading series. Later, when I curated a directors’ workshop series for New Georges called The Roaring Girls, Jessica told me of her growing interest in adapting Henry V. The Roaring Girls allowed women directors to confront head-on the demands, frustrations, and rewards of working within an ostensibly male-centered classical canon. Some of the questions we addressed through this project were: How are women presented and represented in these works? When is the lack of a voice—either as a character or as a producer/director—an obstacle, and when does it provide something to explore, illuminate, respond to, without enabling the misogyny so clearly identifiable in many of these works?

Nearly a decade later, I reconnect with Jessica, this time on the cusp of her production of a Henry V which she has deftly adapted herself. How does her being a woman affect her perspective on the piece? What is her “way in” to a play that is almost entirely male characters? It seems like a blatant, brave challenge to the tendency to ghettoize women’s work, letting women work on “women’s issues” while leaving men to address “universal concerns.” Talking with Jessica during a recent run-through of Into The Hazard, she asserts men and women can find their way into the same stories; she’s doing this play because she finds the story compelling, central to general human concerns. Even though it’s a play with a mainly male cast, for instance, it touches upon themes of power, politics, and war common to our present day.

Even then, of course, as a female director, Bauman brings something singular to the process. She’s the sole female in her household of four, says the mother of two who has managed to juggle motherhood and a career dedicated to the development of new plays and voices, but she is no longer conscious of an “outsider” status—at home, at least. However, unconsciously, her distinct perspective still operates in a way that lets her “not make assumptions about certain relationships,” as in the case of this play’s appraisal of men, and a nation, at war.

Shakespeare wrote nine plays on the subject of English history, whose titles point to the reigning monarch at the center of each story. Though the history plays, nominally speaking, address a male universe, in fact the first tetralogy (Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, and Richard III) is marked by the presence of strong female characters, noble and villainous, warriors and rulers, aristocratic and common. The second tetralogy, in contrast, (Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, and Henry V) portrays a world in which women are purposefully marginalized and are acted upon more than they act on others, and Henry V underscores this shift in marked—and at times disturbing—ways.

Bauman has realigned the perspective in which women are marginalized by visually locating women at the center of the staging in a way not obvious to the story. Erin Moon, the sole female actor, plays the French princess Katherine, but the two other women, her serving woman Alice and tavern keeper Mistress Quickly, are played by men. It seems mainly a comic choice that Quickly is played the by tallest male actor—Luis Moreno—until you realize that his/her size is almost a mockery of who and what that character stands for. Whereas in the Henry IV plays, Quickly was a strong character, owner of her own business (granted, an illicit one: she’s a bawd), in this play she now has a husband, the soldier Pistol (Trevor Vaughn). In Bauman’s production, when Pistol uses their leave-taking to remind Quickly that as her husband he controls all her goods—“Look to my chattels and my moveables”—Moreno’s portrayal draws laughter, but the physical incongruity that sparks our laughter also highlights Quickly’s newly subordinated position.

In crafting her adaptation, Jessica chose to drastically cut the text, both to highlight elements of the story she was interested in and to prepare it for a tight, compact cast. Bauman also uses this doubling (or quadrupling) to provoke underlying gender issues in the play. In divvying up her roles, Bauman always casts Moon as male characters who are complicated by having a female play them. I found this most striking when she plays the Governor of Harfleur, who must receive Henry’s broad threats of rape if the city does not surrender to his siege:

What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation

He adds for good measure,

… why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Relying on the intimacy of her staging to underscore the threat, Bauman places Henry (Nicholas Dillenburg) and the now-female Governor on chairs, sitting almost knee-to-knee, as Henry delivers his speech in a quietly menacing tone of voice. As he rises and travels behind behind the Governor’s chair, leaning low to deliver his continued threats, the moment becomes revelatory. While the character of the Governor is meant to be the male authority figure of his town, the female actor sitting there in his role is physically vulnerable to Henry’s threats. The effect is unsettling.

The scene has been oft-noted as a precursor to the final scene of the play, in which Henry tells the French princess that they will be married. (Having the same two actors play the scene again brings out this connection beautifully.) Although sometimes viewed as giving us a view of Henry’s softer side, the scene in fact lays out very clearly the link between sexual and political domination. Although he plays at asking her for a kiss, he and she both know that he has the power to take it, and her, and her country with it. Here, too, Bauman pushes her actors to look for this more disturbing interpretation. She notes that in rehearsal, both Moon and Dillenburg had problems with the scene, particularly Dillenburg who felt uncomfortable with the implications of Henry’s actions. When it came time for the kiss—which incidentally shuts Katherine up for the rest of the play—he was reluctant to do it. According to Bauman, Moon was also discomforted by the unpalatable tone of the scene, though in her reaction, Bauman feels the actress shows how women may, or try to, maintain dignity under difficult circumstances.

The other major reason Bauman opted for this smaller cast—6 actors doing over 25 roles—is that she wants her audience to consider how it is decisions made by small groups of people can affect the course of history. And from the opening moments, the play slants towards a study of the media, its power to affect public understanding of political issues, and the role of Henry as a self-made public figure within its scrutiny. Henry the Fifth is an apt figure to have as a play’s protagonist, since he’s naturally attuned to the uses and benefits of playacting—in his case, it just happens to be on a national stage. As Bauman’s invented prologue points out, he’s already proven adept at dissembling. When as Prince Hal (in Henry IV Part I) he deliberately chooses to associate with tavern denizens: he’d “imitate the sun / Who doth permit the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty from the world,” so that when it came time for him to assume his rightful place “he may be more wondered at / By breaking through the foul and ugly mists.” In Henry V, Henry continues to demonstrate an ease—indeed a need—to play at various roles: while he is no longer the roustabout Hal, and is now every inch the king, he also slips in and out of guises to suit his political or personal needs.

This play is rife with contradictions: its choruses promise a peek at action that we then never see. When it tells us, for example, that “all the youth of England are on fire,” and “honour’s thought / Reigns solely in the breast of every man: / They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,” we see first an instance of treachery on the part of Henry’s closest friends, and then a scene on a London street in which Quickly’s new husband and his compeers, Bardolph (Scott Whitehurst) and Nym (David McCann), engage in petty rivalries, a far cry from the honor-informed battles promised by the Chorus. In effect, this variance sets the stage for us to accept—both in watching this production and in our reception of news and events in our own world—the disparity between what we hear as part of an “official” story versus what really occurs.

Bauman offers many instances in which the staging reflects the contradictions inherent in the play’s plot and structure. One of Bauman’s stated goals was to examine how media culture shapes our perceptions of war and heroism: it’s a part of the public staging of ceremony and as such is used to sell the play’s thematic bill of goods. And throughout the play, the live action is interrupted by various forms of video renditions of sections of the text. The different kinds of media samples—live feed and pre-recorded scenes, all of different tones and styles such as reality show clips, military service ads, newscasts, or talking-head documentary commentary—disrupt the action, but the disruptions are earned and the pause they bring to, even force on, the live action work to stress the text’s contradictions. The media interruptions remind us the world is ever more dominated by the form: it’s an integral part of how we communicate. Taken all in all, Into the Hazard offers a look at a work that is neither pro-war nor anti-war, but is—as Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro terms it—a “going-to-war” play. Bauman’s production illuminates the precise costs of living in such a world. – Julie Bleha

Into The Hazard [Henry V], by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Jessica Bauman, set and lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, video design by Austin Swister, runs through June 20th at Walkerspace (46 Walker Street, NYC). Tickets: $15, www.ticketcentral.com

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