Rape Those Women! Slaughter Those Babies!–Why You Can’t Just Stage “Henry V” For The Hell Of It

Haim Watzman

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.

7 thoughts on “Rape Those Women! Slaughter Those Babies!–Why You Can’t Just Stage “Henry V” For The Hell Of It”

  1. Hmmm. As I read this, Im wondering if you saw the same production as I did? While I will agree that Henry V is not an ‘easy’ performance to either stage or follow, this rendition (to me, just told….as the director wanted to do) allowed for a few hours peak into another world of classic theater. It’s not a show for those with little or no knowledge (thankfully I had a bit of time to read the synoposys printed in the program prior to the curtain). I frankly think the political observations are neither relevant or appropriate..though this IS Jerusalem and one can’t seem to escape that, even for a 3 hour performance. Possibly your child saw the show with imagination and wonder, and not as the misguided, ‘amorphous’ political statement you did.

  2. Oh Poppycock! Ars gratia artis say I, not ars gratia politics.
    Let theatre audiences enjoy the performance and let them hear the author’s voice rather than
    some director’s purge of his/her political Angst.
    Gimme pure Shakespeare any day!!
    Henry V as presented by Shakesreare Jerusalem
    is a stirring production which left me with a lot of food for thought and reflection about many things.

  3. Unlike your other commenters, I completely agree with your review, we were definitely watching the same performance and it was anything but “stirring.”

    I am loathe to chime in with criticism, for I have admired Shanon Kisch’s previous productions of Shakespeare in smaller, less grand venues: Admittedly, the last thing I expected now that she has moved on to helm Shakespeare Jerusalem was a pared-down version on a lesser level of a play – one of my personal favorites- which did not resonate in the slightest. The professional actors, with the exception of one, seemed wasted and bored. I too found it incongruous that a play with so much potential, so full of raw emotions and themes, was presented in such a constrained and boring manner. To answer your previous commenter, I feel “classic theater’ was clearly the directors aim, but it fell very short. And the program did not explain any of the directing choices, rather it was marginally useful as distraction during the more unwatchable scenes.

    If Shakespeare Jerusalem mounts another production, I would hope it is one which is more accessible, both to the audiences, the actors, and the director herself.

  4. Hey, please read me carefully. I did not say that the production should have had a political slant. I said that any theater production has to have an *artistic* justification and that actors need to know how their roles fit into the director’s concept of the play. Such a concept may or may not have political content. If you have your main character threaten to rape women and slaughter infants, then the director, and through her the actor, need to make sense of that within the production’s concept. The director, and the actor, must have an understanding of *why those lines need to be said* in the context of the character, the situation, and the problem of the play. I saw no evidence of such an understanding in this production.

  5. It is a pleasure to see a healthy debate about the merits of a classical theater production staged in Jerusalem. Let me weigh in.

    I also attended the opening night production of Shakespeare Jerusalem’s Henry V. I found the evening to be rewarding although long. Henry V is a long play, but it is factually incorrect to state that Kisch has made no cuts or emendations in the play. There were not only significant cuts from the original Shakespeare text, but scenes were moved about. Witness the closing scene of this production, which was not the closing scene as written. To put that particular scene at the end is I believe a very personal statement by Kisch of her view of war and its effects, usually negative, on the simple people who fight for their rulers.

    I detected no boredom in the actors. I saw excellent ensemble playing instead. It is quite daring to cast Henry V with only 7 actors, but I found each of them impressively capable – moving among their assigned roles; bringing to each role an appropriate characterization; changing their dialects, language, and, in two cases, their sex (one with hilarious effect).

    Most of all though I take exception with the view that Henry, being capable of great cruelty, must be portrayed as a monster. In Henry’s time, a monarch’s first requirement for survival was to be hard – on occasion even cruel and tyrranical. Softness meant failure and early death or overthrow. Yet the historical Henry V was one of the few monarchs who – likle Charlemagne and even Elizabeth I – combined the requsite cruelty and hardness with a humanistic vision. Thus Shakespeare shows Henry as a figure akin to Hamlet, questioning himself even though he does what he must do to survive. Some of his monolgues before the battle, and of course the scene where he courts Catherine, show this softer side of the man. Shakespeare leaves us to weigh Henry on the scales of our value systems, and Shannon Kisch in her presentation gives also us this liberty. I think that is what Mizmor liked. I liked it too.

  6. Ben — Thanks for correcting me. I was relying more on memory than an examination of the play. Indeed, there were some cuts and rearrangements, although I don’t think they were as significant as you make out. In any case, I don’ t think they serviced to focus the production.
    Compare the Khan Theater’s current version of “Othello,” which offers a cohesive and incisive view of that play. Of course, it’s in Hebrew, so we miss the poetry.

  7. What Ben Bruno said……I think the merit of the play is in the characterization of The Human–the conflicts, the moral choices, the actions of the people in the situation portrayed. Classic Shakespeare catches such conflicts splendidly. I enjoy any moral tale-telling, whether it’s Othello or Star Trek, so long as ‘the play’s the thing.’

    I do NOT think every play or show needs to be infused with a political slant, and I’m quite sick of paying to see what I think is Shakespeare, for example, and finding instead that I’m being subjected to a director’s re-write of the Bard through the lense of that director’s intepretation of modern political correctness. I’m not an idiot, nor am I housebound and out of touch with reality–I go out to a play, or a symphony, in order to be entertained, not to be preached to. But as I am also a thinking, feeling, rational human being, I am perfectly capable of ‘connecting the dots’ on my own after the performance without the need of a polemic from the director.

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