Henry V: Can’t See the Play For the Chairs

Once more unto the breach, my friends-and this is some breach. We’ve long known that the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park is a high-risk venture each summer. Anything can happen, and anything usually does. But Mark Wing-Davey’s wayward production of Henry V with Liev Schreiber takes the strudel.

Henry V must be about the most overproduced play in the world today. It’s about the justification for war, of course, and the moral responsibility of war. Shakespeare wrote the play during England’s dubious military expedition to Ireland in 1599 led by the Queen’s favorite, the Earl of Sussex. The play itself thrives best during war-Laurence Olivier’s glorious, one-sided 1944 film version, for example, a romantic propaganda boost to English patriotism during World War II. Or Nicholas Hytner’s current darker production in modern dress at the National Theatre, with its considered parallels to George Bush and Tony Blair and the war in Iraq that are startlingly apparent in Shakespeare’s full text.

The key to the timelessness of Henry V is found at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 when Prince Hal-the future King Henry-is advised by his dying failure of a father: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.”

Before Mr. Hytner’s production opened in London, he wrote about the present within Henry V in a widely read essay: “a play about a charismatic young British leader sending his troops to war in a cause of dubious international legitimacy will be interesting …. “

Could someone kindly explain to me, then, why Mr. Wing-Davey’s design concept for his production in the park-the essence of his interpretation-is a stage crowded with row upon row of empty gilt chairs, as if waiting for a wedding or bar mitzvah to happen?

Can anyone help me? Can Mr. Wing-Davey? When we think of war, do we think of chairs? I asked six people attending Henry V in the park if they could tell me what the chairs meant. They were all as mystified as me. This column is intended to be a forum for discussion, and honestly held differences are always welcome. In an unprecedented move, let me therefore invite Mr. Wing-Davey to write in and help us all figure out the significance of the chairs. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve missed the point if he will tell me why the chairs are there, what they mean and what their relationship is to Henry V .

When Mr. Wing-Davey and his designer, Mark Wendland, were discussing Shakespeare’s point of view about the moral and political ambiguities of Henry’s trumped-up war on France, at what point did they cry out with the elation of the divinely inspired, “Let’s say it with chairs!”? A number of his chairs are in a windswept pile, others balance precariously on what appear to be abstract piles of newspapers. Various characters sit on them, but not much. There must be at least 50 chairs onstage. They’re a touch of Ionesco in the night.

Ionesco’s renowned play The Chairs has an absurdist point, however. These chairs are just silly. Unless, that is, Mr. Wing-Davey is saying war is as silly as, well, chairs. We could see the point. But is it one worth making? Does it illuminate Henry V ?

The strange coincidence is, I’ve seen those chairs before. Gilt chairs were Tommy Tune’s design motif for his beloved Broadway musical version of Grand Hotel a decade or more ago. The curtain went up, and to everyone’s surprise, what we saw were row upon row of gilt chairs. Well, I knew immediately they had to go. Because Tommy’s chairs surely had to make room for Tommy’s choreography.

I’m not saying the Wing-Davey chairs are a copy of the Tommy Tune chairs. They’re used differently in Henry V . The Wing-Davey chairs occasionally make room for such things as a marauding army, a lecture about Salic law and the precarious justification of wars on France, and so on. Otherwise, they just sit there, cluttering up the place.

I’m sorry to go on about the chairs. But they stand for something bigger than it seems. They actually cut us off from the action. They make the production appear underpopulated. But whatever they’re supposed to mean , the point is they actually contradict Shakespeare’s own instructions for staging the play. The Chorus in Henry V’ s prologue asks us to use our imaginations: “On your imaginary forces work.” Shakespeare is saying, in effect, “I can’t re-create armies for you or the fields of France on a mere stage. But your imagination can!” Provided-we might add-that we have Shakespeare’s triumphant language and poetry to conjure it all up for us. In other words, Henry V’s renowned prologue is a practical plea for simplicity in design.

Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoof i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times ….

But every gimmick Mr. Wing-Davey uses only takes our thoughts elsewhere. His kings are decked out in modern business suits and Elizabethan finery in the usual mishmash of styles signaling no point of view, literally “jumping o’er times.” It’s been done so many times before, too, like Mr. Schreiber’s King Henry, who’s costumed in contemporary army gear yet carrying a sword. Throw in such diverting, crowd-pleasing moves as a naked shower scene for the French princess Katherine, a Pistol who’s a cartoon 1950’s rocker with a parody Brooklyn accent (and his pants down as he sits on the toilet), photo ops for the king, a swimming-pool sequence for the French court and Apocalypse Now acid rock for the battle scenes, and where are we?

Shakespeare in the Park, folks. Where else could we be? The guys pretending to be horses who looked like male strippers in their jockey briefs and chaps are playing war for laughs, obviously. They must be the director’s homage to Equus . But the French dukes riding to war shouldn’t be made laughable. If they are, there’s no glory in Henry’s victory at Agincourt. Then again, the director has the English army chant when they’re galvanized into bloody war, “Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!” Ah, the poetry of it. “Here we go!” It’s the English soccer supporter’s yobbo battle cry on match day.

But Shakespeare’s fighting men in Henry V aren’t coarse or foolish. They aren’t the vulgar herd. To the contrary, the common soldiers Bates and Williams are the dignified Christian conscience of the play-challenging the warrior-king about the moral responsibility of war. The Bates and Williams scenes are played seriously-thank heavens-but Mr. Wing-Davey’s silly tricks pound Shakespeare’s wit and intention into the ground.

Mr. Schreiber’s Henry just about manages to rise above the proceedings, at a price. He opened well-a still, calm, steely presence, a formidable leader in the making. Nothing could be clearer than that the former playboy Prince Hal is now a king with a destiny. The icy ruthlessness was always within him. But Mr. Schreiber’s ease with Shakespeare gives way to glibness. He’s much better as a Machiavellian than a romantic hero (and Henry must be both). His “once more unto the breach” is shouted, Henry’s soliloquy of self-doubt milked. This is a king, after all, who has the French prisoners of war petulantly killed on a whim-in our terms, a war crime. But midst the clamorous mess of the production, there’s no room for moral ambiguity, no “brightest heaven of invention,” I’m afraid, in this “fair and lucky war.”

Henry V: Can’t See the Play For the Chairs