We do our one and only preview of Henry tonight, prior to Saturday night's opening. One often feels the need for more previews, especially for a comedy where audience response is a big part of the rhythm of the show-- ACT and Berkeley Rep typically have a full week of previews before the opening. But it feels as though we'll be fine. The rehearsal process has taken five and a half weeks, though the scheduling has been irregular, and I think everyone feels pretty confident of what they're doing, considering we've only been working on the set for about four days. The costumes, of course, have added a new dimension (as well as an additional challenge-- I'm having to learn to clear my three-foot train so I don't walk back over it), and the show feels ready for an audience.
The set is quite simple and unadorned, its starkness relieved only by a few furniture pieces (thrones, benches, one large screen for Katherine's apartments) and two or three "flown" pieces (lowered from the flies, that is) that add some color-- I open the show with a Prologue excerpted from Wolsey's final scene, while being ceremoniously robed by two monks behind a scrim, painted with the royal arms, which becomes transparent when we are lit behind it. I'm told the image is very effective. The costumes are the single element in the production which approaches high concept, and I'm not sure how effective they will be. The designer was impressed by some unfinished portraits he saw by Hans Holbein (in effect the Tudors' house artist) in which the head and shoulders were fully detailed but the bottom of the canvas remained unpainted. He has transferred this to a look in which all the costumes are made of off-white fabrics (pretty uniform in color, although with a wonderful range of fabric textures) and then hand-painted and appliqued so that every figure on stage is neutral from mid-chest tp the floor, with all the color and detail (fur collars, chaplets, chains of office) concentrated above the sternum. The idea is to direct the viewer's focus onto the faces, consistent with the director's emphasis on character interplay over spectacle; I worry only that all those near-white tones may be a little overwhelming and actually achieve the opposite effect. We'll see. Here are some of the sketches to give an idea of the effect:
My other concern is with the pace of the show, especially in the second half. The play reminds me of Julius Caesar in that after two of the three main characters-- Wolsey and Katherine-- pass from the scene, the most dramatic actions of the play have run their course, leaving to Act V the plotting of the King's Council to dislodge Archbishop Cranmer, and the birth of the baby Elizabeth (with the attending encomiums and golden-hindsight prophecies of her future greatness. At the moment, it seems to me that the last few scenes are a little lacking in dramatic drive, and even in the earlier acts, I could wish that scene followed scene with more energy and pace-- the action tends to stop, the stage darkens and music (well-chosen, evocative music-- I will say that) plays while furniture is moved and the scene prepared for the next group of characters. I fear that we lose some momentum and energy that way-- I've always been of the opinion (fostered, as so many of my tastes in Shakespeare are, by my early work under Jim Sandoe) that one scene should follow another with as little break as possible, with the initial line of the new scene following the final line of the previous one on word cue, if possible. The effect of our current style in Henry I would call stately rather than dynamic.