Itís London 1939, and bombs are falling on the city. A group of people take shelter in an Underground tube station. One 10-year-old boy is frightened; he canít make sense of this world of destruction. An older woman tries to tell him what war is, the good and the bad. " O for a Muse of fire, " she begins.
Didnít recognize this as the opening scene of Henry V? No need to brush up your Shakespeare: itís the " frame " for the free production of the Bardís great patriotic story that the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will be staging on Boston Common beginning this Friday. CSC artistic director (heís also just been named resident director for the Wang Center) Steven Maler explains that the company, which has been giving Boston free access to the Bard since 1996, had planned to perform Macbeth this summer, but after September 11, he decided that Henry V would be more appropriate. He describes Shakespeareís history plays as being " a cycle of violence; each one achieves order at the end before the next one tumbles back into chaos. "
As for Henry himself, Maler (who was associate director when Ron Daniels directed Henry V for the American Repertory Theatre in 1995) acknowledges that " you canít deny the charisma and bravery of this guy. And he has an accessibility and ease with the common man. " In other words, thereís validity to Laurence Olivierís heroic depiction of Henry ó but itís not the whole story. Maler points to three " horrible, or at least questionable " decisions on the kingís part: the speech at Harfleur, where Henry threatens to defile the townís pure maidens and spit its naked infants upon pikes unless it surrenders; the hanging of Bardolph for stealing an osculatory from a French church; and the order, given when the French appear to be getting reinforcements, that every soldier should kill his prisoners. " Heís pursuing an aggressive war, " Maler points out, reminding us that England hadnít been attacked by France. " The siege at Harfleur lasted for months, and Henry lost a third of his men to disease and dysentery. Maybe itís all a game, a bluff, but the vision of violence is horrifying. It works, but itís dubious. "
The Bardolph episode will be more horrifying still. In the text of the play, Bardolphís comrade Pistol tells us first that Bardolph is to be hanged and then that he has been. But in the CSC staging, Bardolph will be brought on screaming and yelling and put in a chair with a noose around his neck, and after Henry says, " We would have all such offenders so cut off, " the chair is yanked out. Maler observes that Bardolph is " an essentially harmless guy " (he was also, in Henry IV Part 1, one of Prince Halís Eastcheap companions, something King Henry appears to have forgotten entirely) and that there should be alternatives both for him and for Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey, the three traitors whom Henry condemns at Southampton.
And the third decision? " The slaughter of unarmed prisoners goes against every principle of war. You can argue that the French prisoners would have revolted and become a devastating force. But, still, itís not done. And when he gives the order, Henry does not know that the English boys with the luggage have been killed. " Yet through this " battering, " a kind of trial by fire, Maler believes that " Henry becomes a much more likable character. "
One character whoís not so likable is Pistol, who for Maler " doesnít have the love that Falstaff does. Falstaff is a source of life. And though Henry V is about growing up and letting go of playfulness and idleness, Henry retains a Falstaffian ability to relate to common people that he certainly didnít get from his father. "
So who has Maler lined up to play this complicated king? Anthony Rapp, younger brother of playwright Adam Rapp, whose Nocturne, Animals and Plants, and Stone Cold Dead Serious have been staged by the ART over the past few years. On the surface itís an odd choice: Anthonyís main claim to fame is that he was an original cast member of Rent, yet Maler hasnít seen him on stage, only in film (where his credits include Dazed and Confused, Six Degrees of Separation, and A Beautiful Mind, but not in major roles). But the director says that Rapp has " a passion for wanting to do this and has turned down more-lucrative projects to do this. Heís not afraid to be unattractive and play the dark side of the character. Whatís more, he came to the first rehearsal completely off book, and that is really impressive. "
Maler adds, " Iím not sure that Shakespeare-trained actors have more to say than good actors. " So itís no surprise that, like Ron Daniels, heís not wedded to " beautiful cadences, " or that he thinks Shakespeare " was more of a dramatist than a poet. " In the end, he says, " Iím just trying to make this meaningful and alive for Boston audiences. "
Henry V plays at the Parkman Bandstand, near the Boylston T station on Boston Common, July 19 through August 4. These performances are free and open to the public; call (617) 423-7600.