How to get the kids to dig the bard? The pandemic devastated theatre and cinema, but by the time Covid struck the young folks had already been in full retreat to small screens and clickbait.
Two years out of practice watching stories acted out on stage or on screen in darkened auditoriums in the company of others, many seasoned theatergoers might find it hard to get back into the habit.
An initiative launched more than a decade ago by Britain’s National Theatre, NT Live broadcasts plays from London and, occasionally, other cities. Many of these shows feature the leading Anglophone actors of the age. Covid wrecked two years of that project, though the National Theatre on London’s Southbank did mount some productions, including a powerful 2021 revival of the AIDS drama, The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, who had died a few months earlier. Kramer wrote the play in the 1980s during the first horrendous years of the crisis, and the activist-playwright’s outrage at the disease and the callousness of the homophobic authorities in New York City had lost none of its scalding, tragic intensity. (Kramer made a posthumous appearance this May in a lengthy New York Times article on Mayor Ed Koch’s closeted ploys and maneuverings while AIDS claimed ever more lives). The revival of The Normal Heart at the National Theatre was presented in the midst of the second year of another pandemic. Ushers instructed audience members that masks were required throughout the performance. Most people removed them as soon as they took their seats.
What will the resonance of such blithe disregard of rules be when things return to “normal”?
NT Live started up again in January with Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, his most recent play and, the octogenarian author suggests, likely his last. The third offering in this spring’s truncated season was Shakespeare’s Henry V, not broadcast from the National itself but from across the River Thames at the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse, a theatre led for a time by Sam Mendes, who went on to win an Oscar for Best Director for the vastly overrated American Beauty.
Whether an intimate space or the grand Olivier Theatre at the National, some former subscribers will stay away from the NT and from NT Live, even when the Covid threat finally recedes for good—if it ever does. The aforementioned younger generations are happy enough with their matchbook-sized screens and TikTok-length entertainments. Three hours plus for a Shakespeare play? One can see, if not hear, the chorus of thumbs reply: tldw.
One strategy for firing interest in the classics is to enlist a celebrity heartthrob to lead the cast. Thus Kit Harington puts his black boots on the boards for a modern dress, camo-and-assault-rifle Henry V.
It’s an invasion story and the production was planned before Putin sent his armies into the Ukraine. On assuming the English throne, Prince Hal become King Henry decides that he should rule France too. He’s buttressed—and bored—by the rationalizing contortions of a Rumsfeld-like Archbishop of Canterbury that lays out his hereditary claim.
The look of this latest incarnation of the Henry conjures Zelenksy, though the English leader of yore is the aggressor—more like Putin putting his munitions where his mouth is.
Harington is big star, rising to fame and fortune by playing Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. After that long stint, he chose whatever roles he wants on in the legitimate theatre. One somewhat fears that the name of his GoT character—I’ve never seen a single episode—captures something of Harington’s range and affect as an actor: cold. His handsome, stubbled face and brooding eyes project a baseline of stately concern, the flurries of humor that occasionally relieve his worried mien are quickly dispersed by icy winds. The emotional vocabulary of monosyllabic “Jon Snow” seems inadequate for the florid pentameter of “William Shakespeare.”
Max Webster’s production of this play about military intervention intervenes aggressively in the text. The scenes of the French court and military positions are translated into French, and convincingly uttered by the multilingual cast, which did service in multiple roles on either side of the Channel and the French-English battle lines. This polyglot approach led to some fascinating parallels and juxtapositions, none more powerful than Jude Akuwudike’s cynical Archbishop as against his grave and concerned French the King. The green-haired chorus (Millicent Wong) occasionally broke into Mandarin. Llewellyn spat out some presumably vitriolic Welsh that was not subtitled like the other foreign tongues.
Whether you perceive this bit of Babel as a bold distancing effect or a diversity gimmick depends on your inclinations. Given the option, I’ll take the rich and demanding English of the original over outbreaks of linguistic inclusivity.
In taking on Henry V, Harington is measuring himself on the NT’s platform against Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. These Knights of the Realm and Titans of the British stage and screen directed films of the play from 1944 and 1989 respectively. Both are set in period costume: vividly in the technicolor of the Olivier film; fog- and mud-soaked in Branagh’s. By contrast, Harington’s modern-day version casts Henry as a villain—a sexual predator and war criminal. This production doesn’t topple Henry from his plinth but sprays a lot of graffiti on his heroic legacy.
These illustrious and now easily maligned films make abundant use of music. Sir William Walton’s mid-century medievalisms bolstered the English host at Agincourt in all its late imperial, anti-fascist technicolor glory.
Branagh enlisted Patrick Doyle, who later scored another Harry film (Potter, that is). The composer sanctified the more dour proceedings of 1989 with a sappy Latinate hymn of victory, Non nobis, Domine.
The sonic covering fire for Harington’s Henry comes Patrick Mackay, who serves up incidental music without incident. More interesting are the on-stage interludes. After the carousing sing-along to Sweet Caroline cheers the dissolute Prince Hal as he snorts coke and raves through the night at the start of the play, the French campaign, its solemnities and horrors, are framed by a singing actors who give use evocative fragments of early modern British choral classics. These come from the wrong centuries —Elizabethan, Restoration, rather than Plantagenet England. Yet provided with a scrim of electronics by Doyle, these favorites (as in William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus) render the hallowed music of the English cathedral repertory as ghostly curse rather than benediction.
The most extended and memorable of these musical interpolations is an electrified and electrifying Cold Song of Henry Purcell. Sung by resolute and expressive baritone Adam Maxey (who also delivers his spoken lines with bluff bravura and clock-and-dagger suspicion in French and English as the Dukes of Orléans and Bedford), this frozen gem of the late-seventeenth-century avant-garde radiates an extreme temperature the opposite of the heat of war.
In spite of these inventive, even revelatory musical moments, I couldn’t help but yearn at times during the dark and chaotic contemporaneity of the Donmar production for a more comic telling: a Brexit-in-Reverse with a crazily blonde Boris-Johnson-type delivering those famous Britain-first lines like “We few, we happy few” with a smirk and a chortle.
I missed the original NT Live broadcast back in April two months into the Ukraine War. On a cold and overcast June Saturday last in a matinee screening in Ithaca, New York I counted a dozen mostly gray heads in the Big Dark. We were few, and, in spite of some interventionist collateral damage, happy.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)