(Disclaimer: In no way am I attempting to claim I am of some higher civility and aristocracy being able to understand Shakespeare—I just don’t think he is that difficult to follow if you are paying attention.)
Every year, Nashville hosts a Shakespeare Festival at Centennial Park. Each year, a Shakespeare play is chosen to be performed for a month-long period. This year’s play was Henry V.
Always up for a play, I decided to go closing weekend. Thinking it would be a nice time to share with my brother and his girlfriend, I invited them to go as well.
The director chose to frame Henry V within a Southern occupied plantation during the American Civil War. The plantation owners had two sons: one chose to support the Union, the other chose the Confederacy. The play begins with the Union soldier returning home to find it occupied by Confederate soldiers and…his brother! His brother isn’t too happy to see him—as you would expect—and things get confrontational. Right about this moment, a slave wanders in reading—you guessed it—Henry V! After she is chastised by a Confederate soldier, the mother of the boys steps in and, in an unspoken proposal, offers to resolve the matter between her sons by having everyone on the plantation act out Henry V. And so Henry V begins.
Whenever conflicts in my own life are so dire, I usually act out a play too, so I can understand choosing such a solution. Realistically though, jokes aside, acting out a play that coincides with what is happening in your life could probably be a good catharsis for your own troubles. After all, it seemed to work for the brothers. In the end, England beats France, Harry is given France’s princess, being the object that she is, and all pleasantries between the nations are restored. The play closes with the brothers dropping their draperies that represented the separate nations; their relationship may not be completely healed, but scar tissue has definitely begun to form to seal the wound. Hip, hip, hooray!
While I sat alone on my Mexican blanket—because my brother and his girlfriend found the ground unsatisfactory—I watched the actors transition from Southern accents to every type of British accent and for some, even to French. It truly was a talented cast as most of the actors played a multiplicity of roles. The man who played the drunken Falstaff definitely stole the first half of the show. He was rather robust and rolled around frequently; ‘twas quite hilarious. By the end of the play, I was ready to go fight France for England. That Harry sure could rouse the troops. I didn’t though. Instead, I neatly folded my blanket and walked to find my comrades, thinking they would be eager to discuss the play and the alternative setting of the Civil War.
I received no such response. My brother immediately and loudly tells me never to bring him to such a play again. I politely ask him to hold his tongue at least until we get to the sanctity of the car—he didn’t, to my dismay. Further to my embarrassment, he continued to even more loudly rattle off every thought that came to him. “So I got that England was fighting France.” “I know they got on a boat at one point; that was cool.” “I didn’t understand anything that was happening.” Essentially, my brother hadn’t read the synopsis at the beginning of the handbill; considering the alternative setting and framework of this production, it was sort of necessary for comprehension to have done so.
Aside from my brother’s commentary post-performance, I enjoyed the show. I’m not sure the framing of the Civil War was my favorite, but it was interesting to see. One of the great things about modern performances of Shakespearean plays is that the directors can choose to set the scene wherever they please. It’s always enjoyable to see alternatives, I think, even if they are something I wouldn’t have related previously. For that, I appreciate this performance and I’m glad I went. I only wish I had maybe taken someone who would have sat beside me, or at least read the synopsis in the handbill.
Follow Up: My brother and I did resolve our disagreement by acting out Henry V; I was the Union soldier; it was symbolic.