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We start technical rehearsals on Henry today-- what we call a "10-out-of-12," two five-hour sessions separated by a two-hour supper break-- and the show feels ready to take the next step. Last week we were able to get onto the stage for one session to do a runthrough, but only about half the platforming was in place, so the rehearsal wasn't as useful as it could have been; and then Sunday night, for our last run, we were back in the rehearsal room, with the set taped out on the floor. I look forward to working today on what should be essentially a finished set (except for detail work), with the big staircase leading up-center that will make many of the entrances and exits work. At the same time, we'll be fitting in the sound and lighting cues, some stage effects (a scrim behind which Wolsey is robed at the top of the show, doors that open or close to give the space a different look) and maybe some costume elements; we should be in full costume for the first dress tomorrow night. The cast is confident; runthroughs have gone smoothly, with only occasional glitches, and the character-on-character interactions are sharp and dramatic.
Henry VIII, over its long stage history, has been known for its pageantry. It's unique among the plays in the Folio for its elaborate stage directions, describing in detail (much of it taken directly from Holinshed and other sources) processions, visions and set-pieces that must have showed off the full capacity of the King's Men to dazzle their audiences with sumptuous visual displays. This reputation accounts at least in part, I think, for the play's being seldom produced. When fans of the Bard think of the play at all, they associate it with court intrigue, maneuvering for power among obscure factions surrounding the throne of England and the Papacy, and with that elaborate pageantry; their expectations are not so much for stirring scenes of personal conflict.
Jim Symons, our director has taken a different approach, downplaying rich visuals in favor of a simpler, more unadorned look and trying to place greater emphasis on the three major characters, Henry, Katherine and Wolsey, and their individual arcs of action. The hope is that the story will thus be easier to follow, with less detail that's extraneous to the central story, and that the interplay of character will thus be sharper and more compelling. We'll see how the strategy works. I think it promises well: the small minority of our audience that's acquainted with the play even just by reading it (and I remind myself that I'd never read it through until last fall, much less seen it on stage) may miss the expected spectacle, but most should be happy to focus on the interactions of a few important characters and to fill in the rest with their imaginations-- inspired by the many versions of the story that have flooded popular culture, from the old "Six Wives" BBC series and Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons to the recent The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors series on Showtime.
In other news: the Festival opened its second outdoor show, Love's Labour's Lost, over the weekend. It should be an audience-pleaser, with some gifted comic actors taking Shakespeare's eccentric characters and running with them. Again, as with Macbeth, I had some problems with how much the director has chosen to cut and change. The action has been transferred to an Edwardian garden, with topiary hedges, a sundial and a fountain that punctuates the action with unpredictable spurts, and with an ending that seems to presage the World War ("Keep the Home Fires Burning" replaces both the Cuckoo and the Owl songs) in a way that I didn't find pertinent. The royal references ("King" of Navarre, "Princess" of France) are virtually all removed, and that, along with a breezy insouciance among the four young men in their venture into Academe, seemed to me to render the issue of their oaths and oathbreaking, and the political dimensions of the Princess' mission, less than consequential. So I felt the absence of an underlying seriousness beneath all the horseplay.
The set for Love's Labour's Lost
I've been thinking, though, about my attitudes toward cutting in Shakespeare production. I'm always ready to pronounce (usually critically) on directors' excising of material to which I have a personal attachment. Back in the day, as they say, Jim Sandoe almost always delivered his productions uncut, typically in uncorrected Folio versions (though I remember an editing session on Pericles in 1973, going laboriously through the text to bring our readings into line with the 1609 Quarto, including a number of what had to be typos!), and that instilled me with a primitive belief that just about every word that Shakespeare wrote could be made to work on stage. But I probably need to remind myself that modern audiences are not necessarily prepared to sit still and listen for three-hours-plus, much as I may think they should be. It gives me a pang when a favorite line, speech or even scene is left out of a production I'm watching; but how much of that is just pride in how well I, Julian, know the play? There's quite a lot of cutting in Henry too, but because it's a play I don't know well, and have no previous experience of performing, I haven't formed attachments to particular parts of the text, so I'm prepared to see them go without too much regret. My own ox, as it were, is ungored.