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Monday, July 17, 2006

Notes on a Polish Henry IV

Two months ago I finally achieved my oft-thwarted ambition of over a decade: to see a Shakespeare play done in a Slavic language, to wit, Henry IV, Part 1, in Polish, here in Gliwice (part of the Gliwice Theatre Festival which has taken place every May for the past 17 years-- this production was performed by a group of travelling players from Warsaw, all professional actors, some familiar to most of the audience, but not me, from TV). The dream was not exactly realized as conceived: I had to re-read the play in English before going to see it as it's not one I know well-- I read and enjoyed it once in school, in 10th or 12th grade, and saw it before that when I was 13 and my older brother Geoff had a small part in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production, at which time I was too young to appreciate its many charms. Whereas the original plan was to see one of the 4 big tragedies, or Romeo, Caesar, Twelfth Night or Midsummer, all of which I've seen numerous English-speaking productions of and most of which I've even acted in at some point. And in its genesis the plan involved seeing Shakespeare in Russian. In November or December 1994 I actually had (very cheap) tickets in hand for Romeo & Juliet or possibly Othello in St. Petersburg, but Geoff, visiting from Moscow, resisted the Shakespearean temptation and we went instead to a dinner with his colleagues from Dixon & Co. I've since seen the magnificent Russian films of Hamlet and Lear by Kosintsev and a few moments of Bondarchuk's Othello and bits of an old Russian film of Twelfth Night on TV, not to mention Kurosawa's Ran and Throne of Blood (though I barely remember the latter, which Peter Brook called "perhaps the only true masterpiece inspired by Shakespeare, but it cannot properly be considered Shakespeare because it doesn't use the text"). But that's just not the same as seeing a piece of live theatre; on screen, the language of cinema takes over. I wanted to see a foreign audience electrified by Shakespeare's poetry but in their native tongue. So last spring I tried to get other family members and friends to join me for Hamlet in Krakow, but that didn't work out either. So my first (I hope of many) Slavic Shakespeare turned out to be Polish Henry IV, which is I think one of the most prosaic (in the literal sense that much of the text, i.e. all of Falstaff, is in prose). And in fact the verse of e.g. King Henry seemed to be translated for the most part as prose, and gems like "Faith, I ran when I saw others run" and the pithy, creepy "I do, I will" (Hal as Henry IV/V on banishing Falstaff) became the banal "I ran because everybody was running" and "You're to be banished, and that's that." But such losses were not felt too deeply given the tremendous vitality of the production, here is what I remember two months later: a "rehearsal" production with the actors sitting in chairs in a circle with scripts in hand while not engaged in a scene, in modern and casual dress except for the crown on the King's head and a sinister black trenchcoat and homburg hat for the scheming Worcester, with the characters of Westmoreland, Blunt and other courtiers, as well as various servitors and peripheral characters at the Boar's Head, represented by sock puppets mainly operated by two different actresses, the better to emphasize their vapid sycophancy, a device which at first, owing largely to the cynical sing-song caricaturing of the voices (something like the dreadful Mr. Rogers puppet segments as directed by Oliver Stone, if you can imagine that), I found too clever by half, but which bothered me less as I got used to it and its use became less frequent, the play dominated increasingly by in this case an electrifying, if purely comic, Hotspur, a bearded, slightly too old but charming Prince Hal, and a Falstaff also not quite rough enough around the edges but excellent and moving-- I shed a tear at his "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world," and almost shed another at "The inside of a church!" The climactic duel between Hotspur and Hal was done as an elegant screwball dance, veering from waltz to tango, the ultimate laying-bare of the device, including Hotspur asking for a prompt at one point. The King was well done as the dyspeptic, gangsterly figure he is. The two actresses also won my heart with definitive portrayals of Ladies Percy and Mortimer, both aggressively physical, one preening and bitchy, the other shamanic. Overall, the combination of athleticism, work-in-progress playfulness and experiment, and a true ensemble spirit (I think the actor playing Sir John, that is Fat Jack, or Jasiu (YA-shoo) as they call him, was the only one who played just a single role) were inspiring and delightful, the whole thing bristling with integrity and sharpness, but I'm still waiting to consummate my desire for the Kierkegaardian repetition that will be Shakespearean tragedy, on stage, in Polish.


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