Focus on "Henry V":

Navigating Digital Text, Performance, & Historical Resources

About this Adaptation

1.1 From Agincourt to the Entente Cordiale: a double timeline
1.2 Thresholds: prologues and metatheatrical frames
1.3 Stage Arrangement: from duel to duo
1.4 Performing War: distancing and diffraction effects
1.5 Verbal and Paraverbal Comedy: another distancing strategy

Page Two Audio File

1.1 From Agincourt to the Entente Cordiale: a double timeline

This adaptation of Henry V establishes a dialogue between two historical conflicts, four centuries apart and both involving Great-Britain and France: the Hundred Years’ War and World War I. It thus invites its audiences to look at the battle of Agincourt dramatized by Shakespeare from a distance and to reconsider it in the light of the positive evolution of Anglo-French diplomatic relations. World War I is yet another conflict, but this time Great-Britain and France find themselves on the same side, fighting together against a common enemy. World War I broke out in the aftermath of the Entente Cordiale, a series of agreements signed in April 1904 to improve Anglo-French diplomatic relations and build up cooperation and solidarity between both nations. A well-known 1904 postcard (that can be found on Wikimedia in the Public Domain) celebrates the Entente Cordiale by showing Britannia (Britain) and Marianne (France) dancing together. In this adaptation, British and French soldiers, all of them patients in a hospital, decide to improve their living conditions and healing process, and to entertain themselves by putting on a play.

1.2 Thresholds: prologues and metatheatrical frames

In the production under study, the embedded plot of Henry V – and with it, what could be offensive for French audiences if performed bluntly – is thus put at a distance thanks to a framing device – an addition to Shakespeare’s text – allowing for obliquity and indirection. By framing the Anglo-French medieval conflict, the company Antic Disposition aims to control its effects on the audience. Moreover, the deconstruction of theatrical artifices induced by meta-theater follows the same logic as Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, which discusses the limits of the theatrical medium, its codes and conventions, encouraging the audience to cooperate in the performance through their imagination. The pact of performance established at the threshold of Shakespeare’s play guaranteed the solidarity between Elizabethan stage and audience, something that the framing device invented by co-directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero attempts to renew and enlarge to French audiences.
The place of the action of the embedding play, which also turns out to be the venue of the embedded play, is highly significant: a military hospital – that is, a place where soldiers are taken care of and where their wounds are tended. Just like the timeline, the treatment of place enhances the reparative power of the production. The patients lift their spirits as they either rehearse or attend the embedded play. And at diplomatic level, British and French soldiers come to an agreement and share a common project, thus renewing symbolically and metonymically the pact of the Entente Cordiale concluded between their respective countries ten years earlier.

The opening scene works as a parable of the complex relationship between France and Great-Britain, and of the difficulty of staging Henry V in France. A wounded British soldier newly arrived at the military hospital gives the French soldier that helped him and brought him there a book he has in his pocket, as a token of his gratitude. The book is an edition of Henry V by Shakespeare. As both are wounded and can hardly move, they remain seated and a nurse acts as a mediator between them, going from one to the other. When the French soldier gets the book, he mistakes the British soldier’s friendly gesture for a provoking one and flies into a temper. The British soldier has to justify himself and explain that the book is the only thing he has about him. Following an animated discussion, they eventually decide to put on the play as entertainment for their comrades in hospital.

The very first scene of the adaptation thus works as a prologue for French audiences, which acknowledges their potentially problematic reception of the play and mitigated feelings about it, and yet encourages them to attend its performance as it may be more promising than they think. It invites them to go beyond prejudices, beyond the dramatization of military events that were unfavorable to their nation, so as to allow themselves to (re)discover the play, to view it in a different light and to reconsider its reception. The printed play of Henry V – the book as object – fulfills a role of mediation at the internal level of communication (between the characters), as well as at the external level of communication (between stage and audience), since it allows to establish a very specific pact of performance based on curiosity and trust, deriving from the acknowledgement that performing Henry V in France is a challenge that both stage and audience need to address together. Such negotiation cannot but evoke Shakespeare’s own prologue to Henry V, based on mutual understanding and cooperation between stage and audience. The opening scene thus contains the whole argument of the production and its main strategies in a nutshell: it triggers off theater within the theater, challenging the medium while enhancing its reparative power.

1.3 Stage arrangement: from duel to duo

Right from the rise of the curtain, the stage arrangement shows a split space. Two military camps are signaled by two flags, French and British, located stage left and stage right respectively, as if in a conflation of the double time scheme. Two different languages are spoken by the characters on stage, which the spectators can hear and see in translation on screens as subtitles.

And yet, this duality is resolved when the soldiers decide to put on a play together. Duality is instantly turned into collaboration and complicity, leading to reconfigure the twofold nature of space. The characters’ nationality is no longer the main criterion prevailing upon the stage organization as it is replaced by their functions in the embedded production: the acting area is divided into stage and audience, mirroring the configuration of the playhouse. Like the treatment of fictional place, that of the stage aims at reconciliation.

1.4 Performing war: distancing and diffraction effects

The performance of the battle scenes between the British and French armies in the embedded play is not confined to the stage but includes the entire theater space, including the audience. Visual and sound effects come from the auditorium. Flashes of lightning are seen above the spectators. French and British soldiers mix on stage, blending both military camps into one, or else they freeze to watch the audience, in an inversion of roles. It all looks as if the battlefield were located in the audience, as if the challenge consisted in conquering the audience, in a martial metaphor of the conventional device of captatio benevolentiae, a Latin phrase that designates a moment when, in certain plays, the actors curry favor with the audience. The performance of war ends as all the characters chant a military song together, reminding one of the chorus that punctuates Shakespeare’s play.

Such displacement from stage to audience shows that the focus of the production is not so much on the Anglo-French conflict in particular, but that it rather aims to initiate a reflection on conflicts in general. War is transposed from the fictional space to the space of social reality, calling upon the spectator’s critical faculty – an awareness Shakespeare meant to develop in The Third Part of Henry VI when dramatizing the War of the Roses. 

1.5 Verbal and Paraverbal Comedy: another distancing strategy

Humor is emphasized in the production by the hybrid cast composed of French and British actors. At some point in the performance, French actors have to speak English and vice versa. The effect is paradoxically both ridiculous and charming. But the challenge sets British and French characters on an equal footing right from the beginning of the performance, reestablishing some kind of symbolic balance between them. The device also echoes linguistic issues in Shakespeare’s Henry V, dramatized when King Henry woos princess Katherine of France, or when a variety of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish accents mingle in the British military camp.

These scenes further utilize paraverbal communication, a branch of non-verbal communication that relates to the materiality of the voice and vocal effects. Paraverbal elements include the tone and intonation, pronunciation, accent, rhythm (pauses, acceleration…), hesitations, interruptions, and interjections. In Henry V, the confrontation of various accents is a source of comedy. The French lesson and the wooing scene resort to both paraverbal and verbal comedy as words are distorted and generate double-entendre.


This page has paths:

This page references: