Shannon Kisch, the director of Shakespeare Jerusalem’s initially promising but ultimately amorphous production of Henry V, at least has my daughter Mizmor on her side. At nearly midnight last night, as we walked home from The Lab (Jerusalem’s newest and finest stage), Mizmor said, “It’s nice for a change to see someone just do a Shakespeare play the way it’s written.”
Which is what Kisch, in her program notes, says she wanted to do. Recalling a conversation about the problems of staging this historical drama, she writes: “The sentence I remember most clearly, and that which made the most sense to me, was this: ‘Why don’t you just tell the story?’”
I love my daughter and respect her opinions, and I sincerely admire Shakespeare Jerusalem’s ambition to stage the Bard’s works for Israeli audiences, but this production is a textbook demonstration of exactly why you can’t just “just tell the story.”
Kisch’s nearly bare stage, and her use of six actors and one actress to play all the roles, are not traditional devices, but they are ones that have proven successful in many Shakespeare productions—and they are the best part of this one. Yet she has chosen to adhere almost verbatim to the text, making no cuts or emendations. The result, however, is not pure, unadulterated Shakespeare, but an evening that starts out with some flash but quickly bogs down.
This work as written is highly problematic as a work of drama; the main character really never develops and the play is more of a pageant than a coherent narrative. Kisch has eschewed any attempt to use cuts and emendations in the received text to focus the action and provide her actors with real motivations. That’s her second mistake.
Her first mistake, however, is her choice of play. I can’t fathom why Shakespeare Jerusalem chose this tale of British triumphalism as their first full-scale production. I found it, in alternation, eerie and ridiculous to hear the seven members of the company celebrating a British victory over the French hundreds of years ago. When a producer and a director choose a play to stage, they must have a reason. They must think that the work has something to say to a contemporary audience, or they must feel that it offers an artistic puzzle or opportunity that they want to exploit. The motivation to stage the play is critical, because it provides the director with her central concept (what Harold Clurman called “the spine”) and, through that, it provides the actors with the framework in which they find, understand, and express their characters’ conflicts and intentions.
This is precisely what Kisch has failed to do with her actors. They recite their lines well enough and a number of individual scenes work fine as vignettes, but the players don’t know what their characters want or need deep down, just as Kisch doesn’t seem to know what she wants the play to say.
In her notes, Kisch writes that she wanted to avoid giving Henry V a political slant. But, with all due respect, you can’t stage a play that was explicitly written to justify and glorify a specific nation, dynasty, and mythic historical figure without addressing the politics, and you certainly can’t, in Jerusalem, stage a play that is a paean to a conquering hero without giving some thought to how it will resonate with your audience. It’s no a matter of political correctness—it’s a matter of artistic correctness.
You can’t simply, without comment, direction, or sense of proportion have your hero tell the governor of a besieged town that he can’t be responsible for the actions of his soldiers—certainly not when you live in a country where abuses committed by its soldiers are a critical issue. You can’t have King Harry say “What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause, if your pure maidens fall into the hand of hot and forcing violation.… We may as bootless spend our vain command upon th’enragèd soldiers in their spoil as send precepts to the leviathan to come ashore” and mean it unless you either decide to present the beloved boy-king as a monster or to somehow build some complexity or tragedy into his character. You can’t, in a city where suicide bombers have so recently massacred women, children and old people, have your central character speak of “your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dashed to the walls; your naked infants spitted on pikes” and just say that you are doing Shakespeare as he wrote it.
I sympathize with Mizmor’s feeling that every time she sees a classic play it’s a production in which the director has taken extraordinary liberties with the text or staging. I can share her yearning to see not just innovative productions but ones that delve into the delivered text and seek to draw out its meanings and significance, rather than ones that impose modern concerns on playwrights who lived in a world different from our own. But even when you deal with the text respectfully you have to have a point of view, you have to have opinions about who the characters are, and you have know why you think it is important for your audience to see this play at this time.
I’m almost afraid to write this—I want to see more Shakespeare at the Lab and I fear that a bad review might doom Shakespeare Jerusalem’s plans for future productions. I appreciate the effort that went into this Henry V. But this is not the way to stage Shakespeare, or any other play.