Gladiator is one of our favorite movies on the silver screen in many a year: we dig it because it's a big epic saga about war and fighting and death and destruction and how it all weighs on the mind, body and spirit of our valiant hero. The same thing might be said of the Insurgo Theatre Movement's ongoing production of Shakespeare's Henry V—and they didn't even need Russell Crowe to make it work.
See, there are six separate battle scenes and 16 actors playing 40 characters in Henry V. That's not so unusual. Every production of Henry V must face similar physical challenges. But what is different about this show is that all of this is happening in one of the county's smallest spaces: the Hunger Artists' theater in downtown Santa Ana, about 900 square feet.
"That's part of the challenge of this," Insurgo head John Beane said after last weekend's opening run. "We wondered if we could pull something like this off, and the more we thought about it, the more we figured, 'Hell, yes, we're going to give it a try.'"
There's a built-in admission by Shakespeare himself that the play is a daunting project to tackle. Any play seeking to dramatize the story of Prince Hal at the epochal Battle of Agincourt, which saw a resounding French defeat at the hands and arms of the outnumbered English, should be ready for an uphill battle. That's why Shakespeare wrote an apologetic prologue reading in part, "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts: into a thousand parts divide one man and make imaginary puissance [armies]. Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them."
In other words, even the writer knew that a play that attacks a canvas as big as this couldn't hope to match the epic scope of the real thing. And in that way, Henry V is uniquely suited for a small space, Beane said, because the audience is urged from the beginning to use its imagination. He knew his fledgling 16-actor company didn't have the resources or space to match the scale of the play. (Although they make a valiant effort: "There are times when all 16 of our actors are onstage and one in particular where an English fighter is taking on 10 French soldiers," Beane said.) But he opted for a production that focuses on the individuals behind the epic.
It's a challenge that appears to cut to the heart of this particular Henry. While Shakespeare spared no gory detail about the "famine, sword and fire" that war brings, Henry V is, for the most part, a highly jingoistic account of the Battle of Agincourt and an homage to a Real English Hero. It's such a brazenly nationalistic epic that Winston Churchill asked Laurence Olivier to make a film version during World War II to boost British morale. And in light of the patriotic orgy currently flowing over our fair land, it's tempting to suspect that this fledgling theater company (which is renting the Hunger Artists' space) opted for a rah-rah-our-country-rocks piece in order to take advantage of said patriotism.
"Some people have mentioned the Sept. 11 thing, but that's nothing that we'd planned at all," Beane said. "But we did want to show the devastation that war brings, and this show is a unique opportunity."
So Beane has changed the focus of this production from the valiant Prince Hal, whom Shakespeare wrote as nothing less than the human manifestation of Mars, to the more realistic people who fought and died alongside him.
"We show the fools [Nym, Bardolph and Pistol] who get caught up in the war and follow them through the fights and see what happens to them," Beane said. "We also take some of the knights and follow their stories in war tableaux to see how it all affects them."
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The point, Beane said, is to take a battle that has such great historical significance (Agincourt was the most hallowed English victory up to the Battle of Britain) and illustrate the impact it had on the men who fought it. That's borne out in the most distinctive change in Beane's production: the use of the prologue's narrator as a central character.
"One interpretation of this play is to make this a greatly nationalist story, and it has certainly been done that way countless times," Beane said. "And it is a heroic, epic war tale—so any production will have that regardless. But the tendency is to sell everything out to Henry, to make it seem how great he was. Our approach has been to focus on the chorus' adoration. In our play, the chorus is this overweight sweaty guy trying to write this story. He's so enamored of this hero, but he knows that he doesn't have it together enough to make this divine king come alive onstage. So we've woven him throughout and made him a more central character.
"There are times in the most emotional moments when he actually takes over the stage," he continued. "He points the way for Henry, and he's out there seeing all the blood and dirt, and he actually cries at one point because he's had to kill these people in order to tell the story."
The Insurgo Theatre Movement's Henry V at Hunger Artists Theater, 204 E. Fourth St., Ste. I, Santa Ana, (714) 870-0598. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through March 3. $10-$12.