1 Henry IV (with the death of Lady Henry Hotspur)

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

She’s too much. She’s too blunt and too loud and she never stops talking. She knows what she’s worth, and she’s worked hard to prove it, but these days that isn’t enough anymore. Now everyone says she needs to be quieter, needs to be gentler, needs to not be the things– aggressive, impulsive, passionate, utterly wholly constantly sincere– that have helped her claw her way to where she is.

Which Shakespeare heroine? Why, Harry Percy.

Alejandra Escalante’s Hotspur has no patience for arrogance (though she can be arrogant) or incompetence (though she is not, perhaps, an expert in her present profession of secret armed rebellion) or being thought of in any way as one of the girls. She’s a soldier, and in her chosen field, she commands the respect and open admiration even of her enemies: of the Douglas, of King Henry, of Sir Walter Blunt. But people who ask her to do things that fall outside her area of expertise– her aunt Worcester and brother-in-law’s hopes she’ll be politic, her father’s longing for her to be polite, her wife’s pleas that she be open and confiding– will be disappointed, and she mostly seems incredulous that anyone would bother to ask her to be anything but who she is. Don’t you know her? Don’t you know what to expect by now?

It seems inevitable such a Hotspur would have come to chafe against the confines of her society, a world where even as a nobleman’s daughter, she would always have to answer to someone else, to lead someone else’s soldiers. This is a Hotspur who would never really have believed in her King Henry V’s reformation– witness her incredulity in the moment of her death, the weight Escalante gives to the second lines of Hotspur’s final speech: dying isn’t as bad as being killed by you. 

And she has not played the game as wisely as the other women of her circle; she has made herself into something too violent, too angry for a woman to be permitted to remain: not smooth and silver-tongued like her aunt Worcester, not undercutting her self-assurance with cheerful eccentricity like Glendower, not thoughtful and pliable like Vernon. Once he throws Worcester out, there are no women in King Henry’s court.

There is a little something extra in King Henry and Prince Hal’s shock and envy. This Mars in swaddling clothes, this infant warrior– what right does she have? How does she do it?

So it seems inevitable: she cannot only be defeated, she must be disgraced. She must lose to a party boy who’s barely wiped the coke off his face. She must be mutilated and dragged around like luggage by Shakespeare’s most famous clown, and he must have the credit for her killing. Her death, as is sometimes the case, is not choreographed to be attributable to her honor against Hal’s pragmatism, her arrogant confidence against his desperation, his luck against her skill. It just happens. They grapple, and he wins. She fumbles with her armor, with her coat, unwilling to believe what has happened until she reaches in and sees her own blood.

She’s betrayed, too, of course, though she never knows it. Harry will be forgiven, her aunt argues. There’s a ready-made excuse: A hare-brained Hotspur, governed by a spleen. Silly girl, she just got so upset, she didn’t know what she was doing.

The pendulum between the two Harrys of Henry IV, the two stars in one sphere, has swung back to a preference for leading men to play Prince Hal, the politician and the pragmatist, the one with the heaps of juicy textual ambiguity and the daddy issues. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has used it as a traditional stepping stone for its brightest young actors: start as Romeo, then tackle the Henry cycle, then Hamlet, then Richard III. These days, we prefer to frame the play as reckless idealism colliding with the harsh necessities of performative politics, and this makes Hal the star, Hotspur his tragic foil.

But the preference was once for Hotspur, and surely will be again. Maybe this is how. Or maybe just for me. To feel how hard-won her place of esteem was, to watch her battering herself against the confines of every expectation– even those of gentility and grace– in her stark inability to be anything but herself. The willingness of those around her to use her for her good qualities and reject her for her bad.

OSF hasn’t rewritten the play, this is the function Hotspur has always played. The lines are the same. But that’s the power of creative casting. Their Hotspur’s a Shakespeare heroine, and just the one I needed.

Review: Henry IV Part 1

Strangely, Henry IV Part 1 may be the Shakespeare play I’ve seen the most. Even if it’s not quite the top in viewings, I think it’s unquestionably the play I know best, and one that I’ve spent a truly ridiculous amount of time thinking about. So it’s very exciting to me when a production can offer ideas about it that I’ve never seen or thought of before. While far from a perfect production, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Part 1 offers a lot to think about, including particularly compelling takes on Prince Hal and Hotspur. 

It opens, however, with a direct call-back to last year’s Richard II starring David Tennant. Up on a platform, a figure (face shadowed) dressed in Richard’s long white robes and long brown hair looks down on the man who deposed him, King Henry IV, abject and repentant in a church. The design matches last year, too: medieval costumes, a wood set with galleries that echoes the architecture of the RSC’s stage, a healthy dose of Christian imagery. King Henry’s frequently religious language is leaned into heavily: the only two places he is ever seen are in a church or on a battlefield. He crosses himself a lot. And most importantly, he seems to take fairly literally his own conjecture that his wayward son, Prince Hal, has been sent by God “to punish [his] mistreadings.” His frustration and impatience, even in the face of Hal’s attempts to reform, create an interesting father-son relationship that is the inverse of the usual: Alex Hassell’s oddly earnest Hal just wants to impress daddy, but his father will not be convinced. 

This sometimes forces Jasper Britton to play against the sense of his lines as King Henry, but it also sets up Hal and Hotspur (a manic Trevor White) less as polar opposites than as kindred spirits forced onto opposing paths. Hotspur, too, looks often for approval to his father and uncle, who are both just as likely to respond with a blow as with paternal advice. Hotspur in turn vents his hurt and frustrations on his wife, the absent (but, you get the sense, ever-present at the back of his mind) Hal, or anyone else he can reach. I was aware more than ever of the hollowness of the rebellion, and of Hotspur’s twin betrayals by the very family members who have put him up to leading it. 

Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be much method to Hal’s madness. He’s certainly no Machiavelli (unless Machiavelli was a frat-boy douchebag, in which case… yeah, maybe), and his drunken revels with Falstaff and the others are clearly a means of distracting himself from his own feelings of failure; his explanation to the audience (for which the house lights, interestingly but somewhat awkwardly, were fully raised for the only time in the show) rings mostly as a desperate rationalization. He seems to realize only as he jokingly says it that someday, he will have to leave Falstaff and the rest behind. Antony Sher’s Falstaff is very much in the vein of Simon Russell Beale’s TV portrayal of the character, leaning more into his advanced age than his irrepressible life force. 

The sense of both Hal and Hotspur as basically good-hearted but badly misguided and mistreated made me dread their inevitable clash as I never have before. Usually, they seem like emissaries from different worlds, their perspectives on honor and politics completely incompatible, the victory of one over the other somehow necessary to the coherent functioning of the kingdom. Here, however, one almost wishes they could just get along, and work together to overthrow their guilt-ridden and self-centered parents. But at least if they have to fight, the choreography of their final encounter (fights by Terry King) is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time, involving at one point a total of four (!) swords. Though it wasn’t as meticulously narrative as the duel sometimes can be, this was more than balanced by the sheer thrill of it, especially at a chance to finally see Hotspur doing what he does best, and reveling in it. 

The marketing for this production leans primarily on Falstaff and King Henry. The former makes sense, it being not only Falstaff, but Antony Sher; but the choice of Henry over Hal or even Hotspur is interesting. It matches the title, of course, and allows more direct continuity with Richard II. And, as the first scene makes explicit, the RSC is interested in presenting their history plays as a direct series of sequels. But try as one might, Henry IV Part 1 just isn’t about King Henry. He has only three scenes in the first three acts, and he’s present in act two only in the form of Hal and Falstaff’s burlesqued versions of him. Admittedly, he has more to do in Part 2, but at least for this half, the production did not manage to justify its marketing choice. 

Another gesture towards continuity is the interesting inclusion of a scene from The Famous Victories of Henry V, an anonymous play from which Shakespeare seems to have borrowed liberally when structuring his own plays about the youth of the future Henry V. I was very skeptical when I heard about this, as Famous Victories is more or less terrible. But the scene, an encounter between Hal and the Lord Chief Justice who becomes a major player in Part 2, actually works very nicely in setting up the identity of the Chief Justice rather than having him suddenly appear as he does in Shakespeare’s text, and by letting us see the tense relationship between him and Hal that is otherwise only talked about. 

In some ways, King Henry’s arrogant fears about his son in this production aren’t entirely wrong: Hal is a rebuke, not sent by God, but borne of Henry’s own self-centered paranoia and guilt. That is the staggering challenge these plays offer to the doctrine of divine right. King Henry can never be truly legitimate because he overthrew an anointed monarch– but somehow, the son of a usurper can grow up to be one of England’s greatest kings. One feels that the only thing standing between that future and this Prince Hal is not Falstaff’s temptations, but his father’s example.

I Must Learn English: Women’s History Plays

I’d venture that I’m in the same boat as most 20-something Americans when I say that going into Here Lies Love (I saw it at the National Theatre, though it originated at the Public Theater), the only thing I knew about Imelda Marcos was the thing with the shoes. And judging by the people I overheard leaving the show, I was also not alone in the need for some intense post-play Wikipedia searching. When you’re making a 90-minute rock musical that covers over 40 years of history, obviously things and people are going to get left out. But Wikipedia (so, you know, intensive research) revealed an omission that I found very striking, and it got me thinking about how we tell stories about history.

The introduction to Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin’s book about Shakespeare’s history plays, Engendering a Nation, talks in part about how continued study of Shakespeare’s history plays is worthwhile because he’s the one who taught us, as English-speakers, how to tell our histories. Obviously you can argue about who started the genre and who did it more and who did it best, but when talking about what we’ve come to copy through the ages, I think Shakespeare’s prominence matters more than precedence. There is no such thing as an objective history, and the things we’ve learned to take as such, as ‘correct’ or ‘neutral’ ways of narrating events are really just cultural inheritances. And a lot of them are from Shakespeare, and a moment when England was first learning how to tell its own stories in dramatic form.

So back to Here Lies Love. My favorite character (besides Imelda herself) was Ninoy Aquino, about whom I knew absolutely nothing, so of course afterwards I had to look him up. And in my ignorance, I was shocked to learn that after his death, his leadership of the liberal opposition in the Philippines was taken up by his wife Corazon Aquino, who ran for and became president after Marcos was toppled, making her the first female president in Asia. The contested election between her and Marcos was what sparked the People Power Revolution that Here Lies Love depicts. So it’s not as if we’re dealing with events outside of the musical’s purview. But instead of even mentioning Corazon, Ninoy’s death is followed by a solo from his previously-unseen mother Aurora, who then disappears as the revolution begins. The mourning mother is a perfectly moving and expected theatrical response to an assassination. The politically activated wife, less so.

There are only about four major characters in Here Lies Love, so of course I’m not complaining about the fact that figures and events had to be excised and compressed. But the nature of this omission– removing the figurehead of a revolution and recasting the movement as one that was catalyzed by a male character’s assassination and then given emotional but apolitical voice by a more stereotypically feminine character type– that, I find very interesting. 

The morning after I saw Here Lies Love, I watched a video of Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe Theatre production of Henry V, a play which features what I find to be one of Shakespeare’s strangest scenes. It’s a scene between Princess Katherine of France and her waiting gentlewoman Alice, and it takes place entirely in French. I don’t think there is any comparable scene in Shakespeare. The other French characters speak what we hear as English, even though we understand that they are in theory speaking French to one another, but Katherine and Alice comically labor to name body parts “en Anglois.” It’s the only all-female scene in the entire cycle of history plays depicting the rise of King Henry IV and his son Henry V. Women shout from the sidelines throughout the preceding plays– Lady Percy begs her father-in-law not to go to war, Queen Isabelle tries to go to prison with King Richard II– but Katherine and Alice are the first ones who get the time and space onstage to really speak. But they don’t know the language. 

The scene begins with Katherine asking Alice for an English lesson, because Alice has lived in England and “tu parles bien le langage… il faut que j’apprenne a parler.” It is necessary that I learn to speak [English]. Katherine, apparently, already knows how this war with England will end– at least for her. In his production, Dromgoole underlines the connection between Katherine’s English lessons and her inevitable political role by having the scene periodically interrupted by the sounds of cannon fire, drums, and trumpets. Alice and Katherine can play a game, but Dromgoole makes sure the audience does not forget what Katherine and Alice clearly never lose sight of: that “il faut”– it is necessary— that begins the scene. 

Throughout Henry V (and sort of dramatic history generally), good guys are manly and bad guys are girly. In the case of this play, that means that the manly ones are English, and effeminate ones are French. The English march all night in the mud and close the walls up with their English dead; the French write sonnets to their horses and boast about the shiny stars that decorate their armor. And the most feminine world of all– that of Katherine and Alice– is also the Frenchest, the only place where only French is spoken. If Katherine wants to join the men’s world, to join the winning side, to join history, she has to learn to speak English. And the English she learns is the names of body parts, a list that devolves into bilingual puns about female genitalia. What Katherine has to offer to the course of history is her body, and the sons she will ideally bear. 

Shakespeare has at least one woman who takes a more active view of her own historical role, but she appears in his first group of history plays, depicting the reigns of King Henry VI and Richard III. Like Imelda Marcos, she’s initially a trophy wife who soon realizes that her husband is too weak to handle affairs, and so takes matters into her own hands. For Queen Margaret, this includes personally leading soldiers to battle and getting her hands quite literally dirty in seeing to the death of a political rival. She is fabulous and fascinating and irresistible, but Shakespeare tends to make it quite clear that what she is doing is, at its heart, wrong. Both sets of Shakespeare’s history plays are very concerned with the legitimacy of power, especially when it is power wrested from an anointed king. But, as Howard and Rackin write, power in a woman is always illegitimate in early modern plays. For Shakespeare, debating Margaret’s right or lack of right to seize power as queen consort isn’t the point. She’s a woman. She shouldn’t be in charge. Though her claims are rooted in her roles as wife and mother, Margaret’s actual gestures of power are very pointedly masculine: she leads armies, she commands lords, she stabs somebody. She very forcefully invades the masculine sphere, and is universally loathed (at least by other characters) for it. 

So on one side, we have a woman who grabs power with both hands, who is compelling and intoxicating and ultimately vicious… that is, Imelda Marcos. And on the other, we’ve got the woman who lives in a different world, who speaks a different language, and who recognizes that while she will have a role to play, it is one that will be predicated not on violence or politics, but on her place as a woman and mother… so, Aurora Aquino. And Corazon Aquino falls somewhere in between. 

It would be nice to dismiss this female in power=bad/female as mother=good dichotomy as a remnant of a backwards, pre-feminist culture, of which Here Lies Love is only an accidental echo… but the more I thought about it, I realized that these poles of depicting female power are everywhere, in history and fiction. Look at Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister basically is Queen Margaret, Danaerys Targaryen’s reckless conquests crumble; Margaery Tyrell, Catlyn and Sansa Stark, and Talisa Maegyr know that their best bet is to stay safely within the boundaries of wife, daughter, mother. In what seems to be an obvious and major exception to this dichotomy, everyone loves Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth (myself included!), who both very pointedly adopt masculine clothes and lifestyles. But they are also nowhere near positions of power. In fact, only one woman in the book series comes close to legitimately seizing what seems to be well-deserved rulership, and that storyline is showing all signs of being excised from the television show (plus, she doesn’t actually succeed).

Look at another large-scale HBO drama, Rome: when major female characters Atia and Servilia (the lovers of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, respectively) face brutal downfalls, it is not because of their casual cruelty or their sexual promiscuity or their relentless manipulation of their own children: they are crushed when they attempt to actively intervene in politics. 

Heck, look at The Lord of the Rings. The evil, titular ring seduces elf-queen Galadriel with the promise of power; she wins and “remains Galadriel” when she accepts the idea of retreating to the lands beyond the sea and fading away. When Eowyn (who previously yearned for a glorious death in battle and disguised herself as a man to achieve this) finds peace and happiness, she must first, in her own words, “no longer desire to be a Queen.” 

(Those were all rather nerdy examples. But I struggled to think of recent examples of films or shows based on history that included women in or near power in the first place.) 

The model of depicting history that we’ve inherited from Shakespeare makes it very difficult to accommodate legitimate power in a woman. It’s one of the things that’s so interesting about Rona Munro’s recent Scottish history play James III: its depiction of a woman legitimately, peacefully taking control, to universal acceptance and even acclaim– though, of course, we don’t actually see her doing any ruling. 

The idea that women are tangential to history is one that seems to make perfect sense. After all, women were subjugated and excluded from participating in the sort of decision-making and empire-building that we recognize as the narrative of history, at least in our western European tradition. In Henry V this is made very literal: the women actually cannot speak or understand the words that the men use to shape events (this is even basically true of Mistress Quickly, the only English-speaking woman in the play, who speaks mostly in malapropisms and never understands her fellow clowns’ sexual jokes). But it’s easy to forget that even in the most ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ histories, we choose which stories to tell, and how to tell them. History is not inherently defined as ‘war and treaties and things that men do.’ But we have a lot less practice learning to value women’s contributions. They’re off to the side– in French, because we don’t understand their relevance, or quietly replaced with a model of woman that’s more emotional, more maternal, more ordinary. 

My point is not to say what David Byrne and the creative team of Here Lies Love should have done, but only to take notice of something that none of the reviews I’ve read or word-of-mouth that I’ve heard seems to talk about. Maybe because it fits so neatly into the kinds of histories we’ve learned to tell. 

Review: Henry IV

I admit that I’m one of what seems to be many who wish that Phyllida Lloyd didn’t think she needed a framing device to justify her all-female productions of Shakespeare– in 2012, Julius Caesar, and now her version of both parts of Henry IV follows suit in being set in a women’s prison, a play being put on by the prisoners. It leads to some moments that mimicking Caesar in ways I found jarring, including an almost identical third-act break from the play when the prisoner-actors go too far with a bullying joke, though it’s a different kind of violence than the actual beating of Cinna the Poet in Caesar

The stark, institutional lighting and prison rec room set (the Donmar Warehouse looks so much more convincingly like a prison than St. Ann’s, where I saw Caesar, managed to) make a certain element of lighthearted fun within the text impossible. The tavern where Prince Hal (Clare Dunne) and Falstaff (Ashley McGuire) spend their days feels as gritty, bleak, and downright nasty as the rest of the prison. McGuire, understated, is funny but never riotously hilarious, nor is Lloyd trying to make her be. 

But the blurred space between play and actor-playing-prisoner fits both plays equally well. I found myself imagining the Percys scheming in a cell block named “Wales,” picturing the form that King Henry’s (Harriet Walter, magnificent) usurpation must have taken. The political scenes all fit the frame nicely, and are about as clear and engaging as I have ever seen them. This is partly because the powerhouse actors are almost all in the rebel camp: Jade Anouka’s Hotspur and Ann Ogbomo’s Worcester are particularly tremendous. The uncle-nephew duo echo each other nicely, both passionate and physical, but Worcester weighed down by weary experience, the likes of which would sully Hotspur’s gleaming, irresistible purity, but might also save his life. She also may be the best Hotspur I’ve ever seen. 

Their political rivals are the two Harrys: King Henry, and Prince Hal, both of whom seem perfectly aware that they lack the rebels’ charisma and appeal. Walter’s King wears his power effortlessly in public, but the strain of his illegitimate claim and wayward son sometimes break through. Thanks to the nature of Lloyd’s cut, Dunne’s Hal is more reckless than most, and his famous first soliloquy reads as little more than hollow boasting, as do most of his promises of reformation. In most scenes, off-stage actors lurk on the sidelines, watching or just sitting, heads ducked. But whenever Hotspur is onstage, Dunne watches intently. 

There’s been so much said about the plain fact of the female ensemble, but it deserves saying. I want to remark on the diversity of the cast, which is even more extreme than I remember in Caesar, both racially and in terms of body type. As Jenji Kohan taught us, apparently the only way to get black, white, brown, fat, tall, women all in a story together is to put them in prison. But at least it’s being done. 

I realize that this post is comparably quite short. I find this production very difficult to talk about. I didn’t agree with all of its choices, but I left feeling like something had happened to me through watching it. And I agree so strongly with its political, artistic intentions, to talk about liking or not liking, enjoying or not enjoying feels too reductive. My enjoyment is beside the point– but I did enjoy it– but I also felt a little like I’d been hit with a brick afterwards– but that’s definitely a good thing. Much as I hate to use the dreaded A-word, I feel like somewhere inside my frustratingly tangled mix of responses is exactly what art is supposed to do.