Henry VI, Part 1
As a means of adding a fifth production to their season, as well as keeping the cycle of history plays moving forward from year-to-year at a decent pace, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, for the second year in a row, produced a history using "original practices."
The mission of the "original practices" school is to reproduce the conditions under which the Shakespearean canon was performed on the public stage, most notably at the Globe Theatre. A better characterization of these practices would be that they capture the conditions present when most of Shake-speare's plays made their way from earlier productions at court to the public stage. Seen as such, they reveal, among other things, the means by which the so-called "bad quartos" were derived piecemeal, by that unscrupulous ex-grain dealer and script thief, Willielmus Shackspere (who Ben Jonson lambastes in Poet Ape and Robert Greene castigates in Green's Groatsworth of Wit).
The key aspects of "original practices" as selected by CSF are: limited rehearsal time, cue scripts (i.e., the actors only receive their own lines, after a few words from the previous speaker)1, a prompter to supply lines when called for, house lights (to simulate the daytime public productions [at court, productions were often staged at night, surrounded by numerous burning light sources]), a minimum of set pieces, and the actors choosing their own costumes. One original practice that CSF will not be following is the use of male-only actors. In this production, four of the 12 actors were women, with three of the women playing men's roles.
And, as we saw in this enlightening and hilarious take on Henry VI, Part 1, original practices also show us—in big, bright colors—how Shakespeare's work changes when it is played for the groundlings, rather than the nobility, or today's audiences, for that matter.
The key to this glorious recreation of the raucous atmosphere at the Globe is the coaching of the audience by the production's dramaturg, Hadley Kamminga-Peck, and the CSF producing artistic director, Timothy Orr, who encouraged the audience to vocalize their pleasure and displeasure with the characters, their language, and/or their actions, and the crew who supplied wadded paper for the audience to throw, as a substitute for rotten tomatoes and other stuff that we can only imagine.
As the audience was emboldened by each verbal joust and physical volley, the players, responded to these antics, with uproarious results. An added bonus from all of this was a revelatory insight into the effectiveness of the Tudor propaganda campaign, with the French and the Yorkists mocked, booed, and pelted at every opportunity. Would that we had more than a handful playwrights doing this today regarding the corporate statists, with their Orwellian agenda.
Henry VI, Part 1, begins with the death of Henry V. His son, Henry VI is only an infant, leaving a power vacuum that leads to a family feud among the Plantaginets, between the houses of York and Lancaster, known as The War of the Roses, which, in the Shakespearean canon, is played out in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, Richard III, as well as the earlier timelines of Richard II, and Henry IV, Parts 1, 2 and 3.
Some of the highlights of this production include Benjamin Bonenfant's depiction of Charles VII, King of France, who along with his seconds—the Duke of Alençon (Sam Hardy) and Reigner, Duke of Anjou and titular King of Naples (Casey Andree)—portray the French leadership as lacking in "manly virtues," Geoffrey Kent's macho send up of Lord Talbot, a military tour de force, particularly the farcical scene where he empties his scabbards, holsters, and pockets of his heavy-duty metallic weapons, ending with a tennis ball (an insult from the Dauphin directed toward Henry V, which mocks the real-life Sir Philip Sidney and Edward de Vere's set-to over a tennis match in which the Queen had to intervene), as well as Vanessa Morosco as the compelling and complex Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc), including a funny scene with Bonenfant that intimates at the aftermath of a roll in the hay with the French King, Laura Baranik's feisty Richard Plantagenet (the Duke of York), and Peter Simon Hilton's nasty Earl of Suffolk.
As noted in our review of Henry V, Thomas Nashe, in his pamphlet Pierce Penniless, argues for a "Policy of Plays" in which the histories of Shake-speare are seen as important and necessary propaganda and, like de Vere with the Chorus in Henry V, should stress the national interest while encouraging theatrical invention, the amplification of events, the discontinuity of time and place, and the advantages of mythological accounts of history. Nashe writes:
How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in the tomb, he should triumph again on the stage—and have his bones newly embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least?
Obviously, Nashe is supporting de Vere's position in opposition to the real-time literalist Sydney's criticism of "jumping o'er time" and place.
In addition, in this play (and others, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra), de Vere mockingly quotes from Henry Howard's libelous tract, "A Defensative Against the Poison of Supposed Prophecies," in which, among other things, Howard accuses de Vere of owning prophetic books relating to the succession of the English throne, which is considered an act of treason.2
Following Henry VI, Part 1, as the war continues, in Henry VI, Part 2, like Julius Caesar and Richard III, we see de Vere's mistrust of the masses, just as he outlined in a pamphlet (The Return of the Renowned Caviliero, Pasquill of England, from the Other Side of the Seas) written under another of his pen names, Pasquill Caviliero:
The chronicles of England—and the daily enclosures of the commons in the land—teach us sufficiently how inclinable the simpler sort of the people are to routs, riots, commotions, insurrections, and plain rebellions when they grow brain sick, or any new toy taketh them in the head.
And finally, de Vere once again extolls his family's service to the crown, with the 13th Earl of Oxford, who played a key role in the defeat of Richard III, depicted as "valiant Oxford," in Henry VI, Part 3.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Henry VI, Part 1 closed on August 5. Both performances were sold out.
1This was supposedly to protect the complete work from being pilfered by another playwright, which is ironic because, as noted above, these incomplete cue scripts, pedaled by the Stratford man, were one of the causes of the bad quartos.
2Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 192.