A classically-trained African-American actress and Shakespeare scholar, I am a huge fan of The Classical Theatre of Harlem for obvious reasons. To those, I add their current production of Henry V, which I beheld at the fabulously renovated Richard Rodgers Amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey (nee Mt. Morris) Park, one of three venues where it has been or will be mounted until September 4th.
CTH’s Henry V aids the company’s goal “to create and nurture a new, young, and culturally diverse audience for the ‘classics’” by embodying aspects of Shakespeare performance from the Elizabethan era. Prior to the turn of the 21st century, Shakespeare’s works, considered entertainment for the elite, largely occupied a place in “high culture.” However, during the Renaissance, his plays were popular entertainment – created for and enjoyed by all strata of society. A fellow actor from a show that I was in in London aptly referred to Shakespeare as the “Steven Spielberg” of his time, contextualizing the high quality and broad appeal of the Bard’s repertoire.
In this vein, in addition to using “original practices” like direct address (speaking to the audience), multi-character casting (one actor plays two or more parts), and contemporary colloquial references (i.e. to or about Harlem), there is a raw quality to CTH’s HV that heightened what I felt watching a performance at the New Globe in London last year. While CTH’s HV is not a comprehensive “original practices” production, I thought to myself, “This must be the flavor, energy, and spirit of a Renaissance production of the play.” It is funny and irreverent at appropriate times and, ultimately, compelling and provocative. It’s noteworthy that I went on opening night, which might partially account for the freshness of the performance that I saw.
Led by Ty Jones in the title role, HV’s company, production design, and direction illustrate central themes from the play like metatheatricality, the irony and cruelty of war (including ambivalence toward its “victors”), and the burden and bounty of leadership. Among the cast, there are varying levels of “fluency” with Shakespeare’s language; but this isn’t a problem. The roles that require the greatest command and dexterity are very well cast while the relative “greenness” of other actors works for those parts. As a whole, the company delivers, including many particularly hilarious, clear, and/or moving moments with a potent mix of heart and sophistication.
The production’s historical setting is nondescript, with one major set piece: a large metal structure that fittingly looks like part of a construction site. As supported by the text, along with on-stage costume and character changes, the set piece serves as multiple locales, aiding the audience in “piec[ing] out” the company’s “imperfections” with our imagination. Tattered and/or otherwise skin-bearing costumes; suggestive movement sequences; non-contact simulated violence; and the dominance of black, red, and blue in the makeup, lighting, and costume color palette further emphasize HV’s metatheatrical aesthetic while establishing a mostly grim, symbolic wartime setting.
As King Henry V, Ty Jones highlights the manner in which the character is playing a role himself, as well as the play’s subversively ambivalent tone towards its namesake. Alternately confident, steady statesman and rousing military leader, Jones’ king adjusts to meet the immediate needs of his subjects in public. However, in soliloquy and private scenes, the insecure, humane, relatable novice shines through. The ultimate beauty and precision of Jones’ performance is slippage between these personas and its effect on other characters and the audience. For instance, it is not clear whether the bumbling brute who attempts to woo Katherine is successful. Likewise, despite his miraculous victory at Agincourt, he does not entirely win the audience’s heart or allegiance either.
It would be interesting to return again towards the end of the run to see how The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Henry V develops over time – how it, as with any quality production, “hits a groove.” Whatever it gains, I hope it doesn’t lose its egalitarian edge, which is true to the spirit and purpose of its Elizabethan roots and The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s mission. Shakespeare is for the people. All people.
Image credit: classicaltheatreofharlem.org