I can’t claim to live in the glorious theatrical haven of New York City, but I swear, we here in our little 7x7 have some good theatre, and we even have some that is great. Being such a fine little city, we also have some spectacular visitors. Last year I was blown away by some visiting Russians who gave me a Twelfth Night to remember (thank you Declan Donnellan). This year, at least at this mid-point, the award goes to the illustrious David Gordon of the Pick Up Performance Co(S), and his postmodern vision, Dancing Henry Five. Sadly, most visitors tend to stay for but a short time, but if you were lucky enough to catch one of Gordon’s five performances at the ODC Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District during this troupe’s nationwide tour, I have no doubt you left with your thoughts provoked, your breath taken, and your soul touched by a little Harry in the night.
The text is translated through movement, with the addition of segments of recorded narration by the likes of Christopher Plummer, Samuel West, and none other than Sir Laurence Olivier, along with various orchestral masterpieces. Seven dancers, three dummies, and Gordon’s eternal muse of fire, Valda Setterfield, transport their audience across the channel and into the early 15th Century reign of Shakespeare’s Henry V. This epic journey is one tight hour, and is a sensual montage of dance and movement, theatre, sound, present and past, thought and emotion. Although post-modernity brags a lack of interconnectedness, every movement on this stage has meaning, and every meaning has layers. Everything right down to the bizarre props—heaped center stage at the start of the show and doled out as needed—has a history and holds a sentiment. Dummies, a rolling table and clothing racks, thickly striped cloths of drab colors (matching the costumes of the stage), ladders, and cutout doors hearken back to past productions and workshops. And in the end, we come to realize that Gordon has taken us full circle, reminding us of the difference then and now between imminent and imposed danger, and the haze we must look through to see it.
Setterfield wears several hats, but her chief role is that of matter-of-fact Chorus, here to “fill in, fill out, fill up (with) Gordon’s opinions.” When she is not stepping in with a bit of gritty knowledge, Setterfield graces the stage (cushioned stomach in tow) as the dying Falstaff, or as Alice, attendant to Katherine (Karen Graham). Graham does a lovely, repetitious dance with Setterfield, who as Alice, takes the lead in this dance duet. The repetition suits the scene, as Alice teaches Katherine the English words for her body parts (remember we are in France during this scene.) Graham’s face transmits hope and eagerness—a youthful vigor that stands out from the other dancers who rightly rely on dancing versus visible emotion to relay this play. Only Graham and Tadej Brdnik (Henry) break from the steadfast troupe to connect with the audience, although the connection is appropriately brief, notably visible in Brdnik’s subtle survey of the audience/field before him, moments before the Battle of Agincourt. Setterfield and Graham dance again at the end of the play, but with the addition of Brdnik, who woos his Kate (and me) in dance. The three begin together, but as Brdnik’s wooing takes effect on the coy Graham, Brdnik outwits Setterfield and takes the lead with his betrothed.
This is not necessarily precise, technical dancing, although have no doubt our talented dancers are capable of such a feat. This is movement as meaning, and it’s nothing less than sensational. As we shift our scene to Southampton, and “all the youth of England are on fire,” the Chorus does well to move us quickly along in the play, and the dancers do well to interpret the Chorus, leaping across the stage as English Mercuries, and then dancing their way in reverse as the narrator explains, “to France shall we convey you safe, / And bring you back, charming the narrow seas…” And in a moment that stopped all time (let me see if I can bring this vision to life here), we are transported by ship to Southampton as the dancers pair up with a sheet on the stage floor between them. The dancer stage left stands in profile on the edge of the sheet—still and tall—as the dancer stage right picks up his two corners, creating a right-triangle for a sail, slowly and steadily pulling his regal captain across the stage.
After the Battle of Agincourt, it’s Setterfield who has the last word, and moves us to the present day. On a well-deserved soapbox, we are reminded of our own state of the union, and I can’t help but think on the dying words of Harry’s father, heard in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:
“Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days.”
The old King’s words are not present in this production, but they are somehow superimposed on the play. Setterfield’s response? “I don’t buy all that rhetoric about imminent danger. I signed petitions and I marched, but I can’t stop…IT. And now it’s my son out there in the army…” Support our troops—support the war—support our sons and daughters. Or curse the war. What then for our sons and daughters?
Now we're in the midst of our own postmodern disillusionment, filled with ambiguity and lacking interconnectedness, although there's really nothing epic about it. Just a cause without a cause, and a horrid effect, and no magical Harry in the night.