A MUSE OF FIRE: ADAPTING HENRY V

June 10, 2017

A few years ago, in a casual discussion with my friends Katherine Mayberry and Scott Lange of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, I learned that the company was thinking about undertaking Shakespeare’s History Cycle—the Bard’s eight successive plays chronicling the reigns of England’s monarchs—Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III. I was enormously impressed, as this feat has rarely been taken on by even the oldest and largest Classical companies in the United States. It takes a far-reaching vision, a dedicated ensemble, and a commitment to see the project through over the course of several seasons. In the heart of that audacious project, I also saw an opportunity to fulfill a decades-long dream of my own—to play the callow young Prince Hal in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and to finish the arc of that character, as he comes to maturity as the heroic warrior-king in Henry V.

 

I set about at once pitching my interest and involvement in the project with a passion. In addition to playing the part of Hal/Henry over two seasons, I offered to adapt the two parts of Henry IV into a single play (which would be performed in the 2016 season), and also to cut and adapt Henry V for the needs of the project (to be performed in the 2017 season). To my delight and eternal gratitude, Pigeon Creek auditioned me, reviewed my script ideas, consulted with its Board, and then took me up on my offer, making several long-term dreams come true at once for me.

 

In eventually approaching the scripts, it came as no surprise that the adapting of Shakespeare’s words carries just as much responsibility as performing them. One must always try to maintain the spirit of the playwright, even when slashing volumes of his words in the interest of time and clarity. One must consider which characters of Shakespeare’s multitudes (especially in the Histories) are absolutely essential, and which can be excised, their lines going to more primary characters. One must even be ready to rearrange speeches or whole scenes, and add connective tissue from other parts of the play, in order to make the story flow swiftly and sensibly for a modern audience. 

 

Thankfully, I have had an enormous amount of help in this task—last year Katherine Mayberry was an incisive consultant on the Henry IV conflation. And this year, our keen directors, Angela and Francis Boyle, with their truly savant-like knowledge of English history and Shakespeare’s works—have been invaluable in adapting Henry V. 

 

But in tackling our particular productions of Henry IV and Henry V, the big question that ultimately needed to be answered was what specific themes in the plays did we wish to emphasize? Henry V, especially, can have very diverse readings—pro-war, anti-war, heroic, dubious, chivalric splendor, gritty realism, etc. What specific story did we want to tell? I expressed to Pigeon Creek my long-standing fascination with the psychological journey that Henry takes from roguish youth to reluctant heir to ambitious warrior to confident king. Of particular interest to me was how Henry deals with the renouncing of his beloved father-figure, Falstaff, at the end of the Henry IV plays, and in what way a production of Henry V might show Henry coping with the emotional costs of that decision. In discussions on how to explore that aspect, we hit upon a unique stage device for our Henry V which we hope will be exciting and illuminating for our audience—even those who are well-acquainted with the play.

 

In Henry V, Shakespeare makes use of an omniscient narrator called “The Chorus”, who introduces scenes throughout the play, and comments on the action. With the exception of the Prologue at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare rarely employs this device in his other plays. Any production of Henry V must decide who this “outside narrator” is, and what his relationship is to Henry and the rest of the play. 

 

In seeking to emphasize the emotional demons that Henry must deal with in the wake of banishing Falstaff (who promptly dies from a broken heart), it was suggested that our production of Henry V have the ghost of Falstaff serve as the Chorus, creating an instant and definitive relationship between the narrator and his subject. Our intent is to use this conceit to turn the regular appearances of the Chorus in the play into a kind of “haunting” by Falstaff of Henry, until he is forced to try and reconcile the choices of his past with his present. For anyone who has ever had to deal with the emotional costs of an anguishing decision, we hope this will be a unique and revealing approach to the play, examining what drives a person to take extreme measures to make peace with his own soul.

 

As for the adaptation itself, I trust you will “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” As hard as I’ve worked on approaching it from a fresh perspective, I’m sure those imperfections are still plentiful. In my defense, I can only echo Kenneth Branagh in the introduction to his own screenplay for Henry V: “I have taken a number of liberties, of a sort, but I hope they are Shakespearean in spirit – as I hope we have remained true to the spirit of the play.” 

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