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Louis Butelli: Talking Henry V (Pre-Blog Part II)

Hello again from Louis Butelli, your peripatetic pre-blogger, soon to be appearing at the Folger Theatre in Henry V and Twelfth Night.

Director, Robert Richmond

I write to you now from historic Columbia, South Carolina, where I have come to visit my friend and collaborator, director Robert Richmond. Robert is on faculty at University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance; he was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to speak with me. We had a lovely discussion about the two plays he’ll be directing, and some other assorted odds and ends. I’ll relay our conversation in a “Q&A” format.

Please note:  I am not a journalist and, while objective truth is a noble goal, I may have messed a few things up along the way. To wit: I did record this conversation on my iPhone, so Robert’s answers are verbatim, with some mild editing for length. Some of my questions, however, have been modified to make me seem smarter than I am. I ask for your forgiveness in advance.

This chapter of the Pre-Blog will concern Henry V, the next will concern Twelfth Night. Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoy!

A Chat With Robert Richmond. WARNING: Long, and very nerdy.

Louis Butelli (LB): Hello, Robert. Louis Butelli, here.

Robert Richmond (RR): Yes, I know.

LB: Good, good. Why don’t we dive right in. Often, you have told me, when you approach a Shakespeare play, you start the process by asking, “why this play, and why now?”

RR: Correct.

LB: Right. So, Henry V. Why this play, and why now?

RR: Well, I think there’s much debate over whether Henry V is a “pro-war” play or an “anti-war” play. And, certainly the 1944 film version by Laurence Olivier was jingoistic, and about national pride, and was rallying the nation during the Second World War. And the Kenneth Branagh version in 1989 was definitely an anti-war comment on the Falklands crisis in Britain. But as many scholars have discussed since, it really is…neither. It’s a play that kind of deals with the effects of war. And the cost of war.

And I feel it does speak to our nation today; I think that the need to unify a nation and become one, to have a leader that can bring a nation together, for us to celebrate and understand our differences and yet feel that we have somehow galvanized is a good message. We open Henry V the day after the Inauguration in Washington, DC – I think the angle of how much it costs Henry on a personal level to be a national leader, for the greater good, is going to be the thing that we’re going to focus on.

LB: It’s interesting that you mention the Inauguration and, by proxy, the 2012 presidential campaign. It does feel that this campaign has been very divisive and full of extremism on both sides of the political equation. Do you think Henry V is a play that has anything to say about public political discourse, or “campaigning,” as it were?

Portrait of Henry V

RR: Well, this play has the greatest rhetorical speeches, probably, in the whole of the classical canon:  Henry’s speech leading his men back into the siege of Harfleur, and then the rally speech before the victory at Agincourt. And I think it demonstrates the power of words, which really is what campaigning is all about. And those speeches have been used ever since – to teach public speaking, as business models, and, with political campaigns, the ability to sort of vocally make the right “dance,” almost despite the content.

LB: So this power of words to persuade and motivate people politically is not something that’s new.

RR: No. I mean, I think that Winston Churchill used this play, and many of the structural elements of this play, to write some of his more famous war-time speeches. I think that one can look at some of the linguistic tricks that Shakespeare uses, repetition for instance, and make comparisons to some of the famous speeches of JFK and Martin Luther King.

LB: But just following along with that – if you compare some of the great political oratory from Shakespeare, and certainly Churchill and JFK and Martin Luther King, to the more “sound-bite” quality of the political discourse of 2012 – do you think the modern ear is still attuned to long form speech in an era of sound-bites?

RR: I do, yes. But remember that Henry’s language contains sound-bites – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;” “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” – we’ve adopted these sound-bites into our everyday language, even now. At the same time, I think that we are conditioned to listen to the persuasive power of words, and to be emotionally manipulated by them in a way that I don’t think has changed over the centuries.

LB: Is that in any way proof that perhaps, as human beings, we sort of crave strong  leadership? That we kind of want to be led? That we want to be directed?

RR: Very much so. And I think Henry V is a play that is about leadership and about a nation wanting to unify. It’s very clear that putting an English, a Scots, an Irish, a Welshman onstage together is saying something. And we’ll see those nationalities very clearly in our production. And one can feel that in those characters, that sense of their nation as their identity.

The Great Hall at Folger

The exhibition that will be in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Great Hall at the same time as our production, for instance, is about the Irish “identity,” and its influence on literature. And as MacMorris asks in Henry V, “what is my nation?” It’s a big question in the play. Because, the Irish, you know, were often the butt of many jokes in the United Kingdom, yet were needed and recruited for this huge war against France, and they were conflicted – you know, perhaps they should have been fighting for the other side.

LB: All right, so then just to follow on that. If we go with the Irish as the butt of jokes – of being, in some way, an underclass, if that’s the right way of talking about it – is there any kind of resonance to the notion of “the 1%” ruling over “the 99%?” Is Henry “the 1%,” and is he sending “the 99%” off to war on his behalf? Or is there something less ominous, something more positive about his leadership over the underclasses?

RR: Well, I think like all great Shakespeare plays, both of those things exist in Henry V. It’s the ambiguity of that decision. On one level, he seems extremely conscious of what he’s asking his people to do, and there is a great moral conscience behind that. He prays, and was indeed a very pious man. On another level, it also seems an almost senseless war. On the one hand, Henry is reclaiming something that rightly belonged to the English throne. On the other hand, at the end, the Chorus tells us that in sixteen years, Henry V is dead, Henry VI comes to the throne and loses it all again. So it does seem as if there’s a sort of moral comment from Shakespeare – however useful a war might be in uniting a nation, it doesn’t always have lasting results.

LB: Right. Just to put a slightly more, say, personal spin on it, take the characters of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, underclassmen known to the king. Prior to this play, we’ve met and enjoyed them in Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and the Merry Wives of Windsor. And in this play we watch them all massacred. Is there something to that? Is Shakespeare playing with his audience a little bit, letting them get to know these people, and then systematically wiping them out?

Elizabethan Theatre

RR: Well, you know what I think it is, is that those characters, their friendship with, their love for Henry is rejected. Now that might be that he has them hung, it might be that he turns his back on them as he does Falstaff – but you’re right. It’s to do with the personal cost of what leadership, and of what civic duty is. For your nation. And they are the price that he has to pay in order to become the leader that he has to become.

LB: Very interesting.

RR: Thanks.

LB: Shifting gears a little bit, then. You and I have enjoyed a theatrical conversation for the past 14 years now, and –

RR: Well, enjoy might be strong.

LB: Right. I’ll rephrase. You and I have endured a theatrical conversation for the past 14 years now, and you have said to me previously that often in early stages of thinking about a show, that there’s a singular hook, or image that gets under your skin – something to which you return through the course of, not only prep, but rehearsal and execution of the play. Is there any image that’s keeping you up at night on this particular play?

RR: I want to know why the Chorus has to tell us this story. And I’m not sure we’ve settled on this completely, but I think the Chorus is walking to the scaffold of his own hanging, and that this is the last story he gets to tell. For what purpose, and what we’re supposed to take from that story, some of that’s yet to be discovered. But my sense is that there’s a parallel between the Chorus and the Earl of Essex on the day of his execution. Now, Essex had his head chopped off – it took them three blows of the axe to chop his head off – and we’re not going to do that.  But I keep returning to this image of a man hanging.

LB: And when you see this image of a man hanging, do you see any more specifics? Is it on a city street? Is he hanging from a tree out on a farm somewhere…

RR: No, I see a scaffold.

LB: In a public square?

RR: Yeah, a scaffold in a public square. And I think the scaffold is probably being made as the audience comes in, and there’s the sense that there’s an event that’s about to happen, and we, the audience, are complicit in that action, and the other members of the company are there to witness this hanging. We’ll start from that point, and see where the rehearsal process takes us.

Set Designer, Tony Cisek

Meanwhile, I’ve already been meeting and talking with our set designer Tony Cisek. We work really closely together – we really go through a scene by scene breakdown of what the story is. We never really talk about what the set is until later, but we talk about these images, and what the story and the themes are inside of that.

Alongside that, I also spend time in conversation with Michele Osherow, who is the dramaturg on the production, and in charge of the script. We’ve had several lengthy conversations about new scholarship on the play and her impressions of the play – she saw a production of Henry V in Utah this summer – and how the play might fit and feel inside of the Folger Theatre which is, in itself, a very unique setting.

LB: So it seems that this process is already collaborative, even three months in advance of rehearsals actually beginning.

RR: Yes, very much so.

LB: It’s very exciting. I’m really looking forward to getting into the rehearsal room.

RR: Me, too.

LB: Shifting gears again, then. What else will you be working on between now and the start of rehearsals in Washington DC, just after Christmas?

RR: …um…

LB: I mean, I already know because you told me earlier. I just mean for the purposes of telling any readers we might have.

RR: Oh, right. Well, today we go into technical rehearsals for The Importance of Being Earnest, which is an all undergraduate show at the University of South Carolina where I teach – so that’s on the immediate list.

And then for the Folger, we are finishing up working on the audiobook version of the Folger edition of Othello, which we recorded with the company of Othello about this time last year, and we are at the final stages of post-production with that.

And, um…

LB: You should probably talk about the movie a little bit.

Richard Willis

RR: Oh! Yes. Next week, here in Columbia, there’s a premier screening of Dreadful Sorry, which is a narrative short film, which you and I made in March of 2010, which was written by Dionne O’Dell. Richard Willis, who will be appearing in Henry V, is also in the film. We’ll do the premier at the Nickelodeon, an excellent art house cinema downtown Columbia, and after that it will go out into the world, to film festivals, and obviously we’re hoping it will do very well.

And there, readers of the Folger Production Diary – if, in fact, there are any of you – is part one of a conversation with Robert Richmond. Part two, in which we talk about Twelfth Night, will be forthcoming in the next chapter of the Pre-Blog.

As always, please share this with your Tweets and your Facebooks, and please do leave me a comment, wherein you say lots of nice things to me, and tell me how interesting and clever my interview questions were.

Until next time!

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