Cry God for Harry! is a 3.5hrs condensed version of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV Pt. 1 & 2, and Henry V. To reference Philostrate in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 3.5hrs Cry God for Harry! is ‘too long’. Reading through the program notes I well understand, appreciate and respect the creators of this work, Adelaide’s Independent Theatre Company, and their desire to condense what is essentially Shakespeare’s first tetralogy of ‘History’ plays – but it is too much for one play. The intention of the creators of this work was to focus on the respective influences that shaped the god-like warrior-king Henry V, particularly the two so-called ‘father-figures’ of Henry IV and Falstaff. This is admirable in itself but rather than clarifying their intentions the length of the work made the event laborious. Furthermore, the inclusion of certain scenes, while delightful in themselves, had little to no impact on the making of Henry V, exemplified by the scenes involving Falstaff and Justice Swallow, as well as those involving Falstaff and Pistol, which were not unfortunately very well done, despite the wonderful performance of David Roach as Falstaff. Subsequently, you start to question the intention and who are the creators of this work actually doing this play for?
One answer to this is actually one reason why I wanted to see this production in the first place. Adelaide’s Independent Theatre Company has produced some excellent work, notably last year’s Terence Rattigan’s Ross. They have a loyal following of people who are for the most part, judging by the audiences I have experienced, made up of ‘seniors’. This is well and good, and atypical of many audiences throughout Australia, including the South Australian Theatre Company. This is not to state that younger people are not also members of the audience but the majority are definitely in the middle-age to senior age bracket. I am not alone in often lamenting the fact that too often the so-called ‘mirror up to nature’ that is presented by many companies is focused on the young, and that ‘senior’ citizens, including ‘senior’ actors, are simply lacking in visibility. This is somewhat a paradox, with paying punters being mostly middle-age-to-seniors watching young people’s drama and not their own. Of course there are the exceptions, but for the most part this is the case. There are reasons for this; the current drive for everything to be ‘innovative’ forces respective creators and companies to focus on the young, primarily to capture new paying audiences. So it is with some relief that companies such as the Independent Theatre Company caters for those in an older age range. This was one reason why I went, plus it was a chance to see some of Shakespeare. I don’t need to see another play about disempowered youth – the RSC’s Matilda being a brilliant and notable exception – I’d rather pay to support our young people in more optimistic enterprises than the never changing ‘theatre of despair’.
Henry IV holds a particular place in the history of Australian theatre as it was the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be staged in the fledgeling colony in 1798. Following contemporary practice of the time this production, being a condensed version of the two plays, would have focused on the character of Falstaff. David Malouf in his Boyer Lecture A Spirit of Play asserted that Falstaff of all of Shakespeare’s characters epitomised the best and worst of the so-called ‘Australian’ character. Harold Bloom stated in his book on Shakespeare, and in other works, that Falstaff, as well as Rosalind in As You Like It, was Shakespeare’s greatest creation. That Falstaff was immensely popular with contemporary Elizabethan audiences is evident in that he appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV Pt 1 and Pt 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and his death is poignantly described by Mistress Quickly in Henry V. The only other Shakespeare characters that surpass him are his companions Bardolph, Nym, Pistol and Mistress Quickly who appear in all four of the plays just mentioned, as well as Queen Margaret of Anjou who appears in Henry IV Pt. 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. It is, however, Falstaff, as Harold Bloom and David Malouf (and others) state, that has a particular potency, a charismatic life force that is spirited and all too human and humane, and a theatrical history that stretches over centuries and beyond the plays by Shakespeare.
The creators of Cry God for Harry! acknowledge the charismatic appeal and power of Falstaff by referencing in the production’s program notes the many ‘great’ actors who have played Falstaff, particularly in the 20th Century; this includes Orson Welles, Ralph Richardson and Anthony Quayle. Cry God for Harry! was blessed by having such a terrific Falstaff with David Roach. Every time Mr Roach was on-stage the production was truly engaging.
However, as the production’s title suggests, the main focus for this production was Prince Hal, later Henry V. What were the forces and influences that made this majestic and victorious warrior-king? The answers include, for this production, the two father figures, Henry IV and Falstaff, as well as the ghost of the usurped Richard II, a subject of guilt and shame for the usurper Henry IV and his son Henry V. The question in regard to the influences on the making of Henry V is fine and valid, but I challenge the further contention that Henry V’s final condemnation and banishment of Falstaff is a tragedy for both of them. Making Prince Hal and then Henry V a kind of victim to the ghosts of the past may have some point in regard to Henry’s plea on the night before the Battle of Agincourt but it is not a primary concern, more a minor point of panic than something that troubles and overwhelms either the young prince or king. Furthermore, the cutting of Prince Hal’s soliloquy ‘I know you all’ in regards to Falstaff and his Boer’s Head companions when he reveals his Machiavellian side was a curious and rather annoying manipulation of the actual text and character. Also, by the time we eventually got to the play of Henry V, the cutting of Henry’s ruthlessness in dealing with his attempted assassins reduces the power and complexity of the character, but frankly by the time we got to the play of Henry V and Falstaff was gone I simply didn’t care and was praying for the show to end. In fact, I will admit that I did leave before the production actually finished, mainly because I needed to catch public transport so that I would be home before midnight.
The truth is that the creators attempted too much, manipulated the respective plays to make Henry more sympathetic, but ultimately failed because they could not suppress the irrepressible life force of Falstaff. Shakespeare knew this himself by not having Falstaff appear in Henry V. Once Falstaff is banished at the end of Henry IV Pt 2 then this production should have stopped – but it didn’t. It was as if the creators were overwhelmed themselves by the charismatic power of Falstaff and Prince Hal-King Henry and while endeavouring to balance them went for excess rather than anything judicious. Something went very wrong here, and it may have been due to the overwhelming ‘feel sorry for me’ attitude and interpretation of the respective characters. Falstaff, however, hardly ever indulges in such sentimental bleating, and thankfully David Roach resisted any such behaviour even with Falstaff’s plea to Prince Hal in the scene in the Boer’s Head to banish anyone ‘but not Falstaff’.
In the hands of more professional actors this may have all worked, but unfortunately the technical skills and talents of most of the actors on stage were simply not up to the mark for such a long evening. I join the long list of critics, and other ‘judicious’ audiences members who have seen numerous theatre works, that lament the paucity of vocal skill, depth and range from most contemporary actors. Ian McKellen’s strongly worded demand ‘Make me listen to you’ when playing Shakespeare does not mean over earnestness, extreme sincerity and shouting. Even worse, as was apparent here, that despite a fair degree of textual clarity, the consistent ‘singing’ of the lines betrayed and revealed the unskilled and untrained, and is always always a sign of faked emotions and superficial and artificial depth, illustrative and demonstrative acting. Hideous. This is in addition to the appalling amount of shouting and forced guttral sounds as if the actors are ripping out their vocal chords in order to sound like they are being sincere etc. It isn’t – it’s just bad acting. This is further complemented by excessive gesturing, hands and arms, usually palms up in some form of supplicationary excessive sincerity, and little else. Add heads thrusting forward, locked knees and facial grimacing so that all characters start looking like they all belong to a group of dipping ducks.
I can forgive the often bizarre costuming as the production is influenced by Michael Bogdanov’s English Stage Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, but even then there was strict compliance with issues of the given circumstances of weather. In this production characters appeared in heavy winter cloaks along side characters in light summer gear. A creative choice by necessity perhaps – I hope – but it looked bizarre and certainly only added to my growing confusion and exhaustion with what exactly was going on. Mistress Quickly in a stylish cocktail outfit, juxtaposed with Doll Tearsheet’s sluttish and slovenly appearance exemplifies the strange choices in regard character and the respective given circumstances of the play(s). The set design, however, was very effective; except – whilst the high throne dominating the stage looked impressive it also meant that some of the most important speeches were delivered up-stage with the respective actors having their backs to the audience and – well – basically shouting. This was the case with Hotspur’s ‘My liege I did deny no prisoners’ speech, as well Henry IV’s castigation of Prince Hal after Hal had taken the crown thinking his father had died. What happens when people shout at you? You basically stop listening. So rather than making me listen to them and to Shakespeare’s words I closed down due to the overwhelming barrage of shouted generalised outpouring of emotional states.
One of the most interesting aspect of recent productions of the Henry IV plays is the re-evaluation and re-invention of the character of Henry IV. Jeremy Iron’s Henry IV in the relatively recent The Hollow Crown TV-miniseries of Shakespeare’s plays was truly magnificent. Nick Buckland’s Henry IV in Cry God for Harry had a similar stoic dignity and depth and was, like David Roach’s Falstaff, a highlight of the production. Subsequently, in retrospect, the aim of the creators in focusing the attention on the two father-figure influences on Prince Hal were very successful. I just wish they had left it there and not gone on to deal with Henry V, or Richard II.
For the realization of Richard II the less said the better; except to say that Richard II is NOT Edward II!! Turning Richard II into an effete homosexual (who essentially ‘sang’ his lines) was NOT what Shakespeare wrote – at all. It is not even true to the historical Richard II. Why did the creators of Cry God for Harry do this? No idea really – but it is another example of a type of insidious anti-gay attitude and execution and repulsive antiquated assumption. If a man is effeminate in any way then of course he must be ‘gay’.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the measure of a successful show was if it was worth the price of admission, the price of the pre-show meal, and the cost of the baby-sitter. Cynical but true, especially considering the costs involved in attending Cry God for Harry at the Space Theatre in the Dunstan Playhouse at the Adelaide Festival Centre. This was a relatively expensive night out and whilst I will continue to support the Independent Theatre (and others), and be a paying punter, nonetheless, I do expect a higher standard. m I wrong to demand this? I don’t think so. I am one of those whom Hamlet references in his ‘advice to the players’, being amongst the ‘judicious’ who ‘grieve’ at those that ‘strutted and bellowed’, and as Macbeth comments are ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. At the very least could the good people at Independent Theatre arrange for some solid Acting and Voice classes for their very committed and dedicated actors – they deserve it.