Monday, February 04, 2008

Actor's Shakespeare Project Review


Henry V conversations: What is a Just War?

An Evening of Scenes from ASP’s Henry V with Responses

In the Basement of the Harvard Square Garage

January 28, 2008

A Review by Lo Galluccio of Ibbetson St. Press/The Alewife

Coordinated by Coppelia Kahn, including panel members:

Diana Henderson, Fred Marchant, Normi Noel and James Siemon.

"Henry V" conversations: What is a Just War was the fifth in a series of remarkable discussions that Ben Evett (Artistic Director) and Bobbie Steinbach (Company member) have put together to achieve a community response that expands upon Shakespeare’s themes and show their relevance to modern times.

I last attended and wrote on, “Entertaining Violence” a forum tied in to a marvelous all-male production of “Titus Andronicus.” ASP should be given credit not only for a top-notch acting company but for ingenious marketing, grant endowments and a genuine desire to give money and intellectual capital back to the community

So it was that on the evening of George Bush’s last State of the Union address, an avid audience of about 60 gathered at the performance space of ASP in the bottom of the Garage in Harvard Square. Opting out of the President’s final major speech of his at best controversial career in office – one marked by a costly and unpopular War in Iraq -- the fans of this theatre troupe settled in to watch three scenes from the production and to hear a distinguished panel talk about Shakespeare and issues of warfare. While I feel strongly that the first topic was discussed fiercely and elegantly, I came away wondering why the main question of the evening had gotten a bit lost in the shuffle of eloquence and intellect. I really wanted to hear a rousing discourse on the subject of a Just War, some typology, some philosophical or humane resolve. What better time, I thought, making my way through the holiday lights and snowy streets of Mass Avenue to discuss this issue, than now?

Not only are we $530 billion dollars in debt to a war that is being fought mainly by poor, rural men with few options, we’ve succeeded in an evolution of war devices/terminology that suggest an even colder and possibly more brutal, detached and inhumane way of dealing with our war, than before. We now call civilian deaths,”collateral damage, ““Water boarding” (a form of torture used against those suspected of terrorism, and many believe in violation of the Geneva Convention) was discussed for weeks on NPR recently in connection to the FBI’s “War on Terror.” And, of course we have seen the inception and rise of suicide bombers/bombing unprecedented in history. The latter is not an invention of the Iraq invasion, but certainly given the disturbing justification for this War—the doomsday destruction against U.S. Capitalism we call 9/11-- suicide bombing is on the rise as both cause and consequence. One example of this is the recent assassination of Opposition Party candidate Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan on the eve of elections there by another young suicide bomber. The fact is we have, what several of the academic panelists called, a “surround” to this subject which is reality-based and not entirely embedded in the various interpretations of text or acting of Henry V which penetrated the evening most, though that is the groundwork from which we this event started. Shakespeare’s prism of language, perspective and context was the guiding light.

This panel was as exciting and informational as the last – Diana Henderson added animated conceptualizations of the scenes in historical terms, Fred Marchant, equally astute lent his a poetic ear to the proceedings, also a former marine who was given a conscientious leave after Okinawa (though he didn’t speak much about this.) The play’s director, Normi Noel, spoke humbly and provocatively of what a patriarchal war drive can do to twist and denude young men of their hearts and James Siemon, a Professor of English at BU, contributed many keen philosophical observations. The evening was moderated by Coppelia Kahn who is poised to become the incoming President of the Shakespeare Association of America. She introduced each scene and led the discussion with a cool and even-handed approach, adding a theoretical context to the evening.

The first hint of discussing war’s brutality came as several panelists used the term “atrocity,” after the enactment of Henry threatening a village in France with complete annihilation unless they succumbed to his forceful verbal “battering ram” to disarm. Coppelia then invoked a paradigm of Henry V which described its duality or Janus-faced nature – that is either to interpret it as the rise of a warrior King who wins, or the rise of a Machiavellian King who deceives and pillages for the sake of power. Both seem to work depending on one’s point of reference. And it was only at the tail end of the evening that the panelists acknowledged that Henry V calls for the killing of prisoners three times during the play. This other brutality seemed a significant detail, not to be overlooked in making a judgment of whether this or other wars constitute a grave injustice against humanity.

As always Shakespeare beguiles and entertains us with his pitched language and the subtle interplay of the intimate and epic: i.e., relations between a man and woman (who happen to be rival monarchs) in the famous “courtship” scene of Katherine of France or the King’s incognito meeting with his subjects in a dark wood on watch where they debate what they actually do owe this King as they are lead into bloody battle. It is against these specific, human moments that we experience the larger forces of a looming nationalism, tribalism and vengeful warfare that have marked thousands of years of history. In acknowledging Shakespeare’s own humanity, do we then make an assessment that because humans have consciences and can fathom issues of justice, there may be both Just and unjust wars? Are we able then to make judgments without some sort of God-like referee about this play or the current war in Iraq? And I had to ask myself-- wasn’t that the question posed for us to somehow answer.

I would have liked the topic explored in more concrete terms, without the heavy gloss on this particular play, its wonderfully acted scenes, and the high-brow panel. It would have given the evening a bit more grit and purpose; however, the aura of academia and the emphasis on the drama held sway during the night. And that was probably as it should be, given that the production was its centerpiece.

Some noteworthy remarks emerged from the audience (finally unleashed) at the evening’s finale. One British soldier in the audience, who’d been stationed in Afghanistan, spoke robustly of how well the war was going and how important Henry V had been to him in the field. I countered by questioning his extreme patriotism for the US at time when, to many minds, we were, in fact involved in an unwarranted war, started by a leader many consider to be inadequate, if not immoral in its undertaking. At another juncture, a young woman described a scene in Iraq that her friend in arms relayed, of men being whipped into a killing frenzy. This she related back to Henry V’s desire to kill. Another woman gave a feminist review of the “wooing” scene, remarking that Hal may have put the charm on, but Katherine was still but a pawn in his game. I could have used a bit more of a controlled free-for-all, so the audience had a chance to present their reactions and views as much as the panel – to let it rip, so to speak. Still, the evening gave a richly balanced discourse.

I urge you to go see Henry V and to support Actor’s Shakespeare Project’s ongoing evolution. Tell them next time they have an audience feedback event, to stay on track with the question of the night and to let the talk fly a bit more. We may be in Harvard-land but that doesn’t mean that academic theory must dominate the landscape of Shakespeare’s garden of beautiful and brutal delights.

1 comment:

  1. I should point out that not only was ASP's production of Henry V the most intimate you are likely to ever see of this play, but that it was simply to most effective staging and performance of the courtship scene I had ever witnessed.