Girdled Walls: “Henry V” at the Armory Free Theatre

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
— Chorus, I.i.20-1

I haven’t been to the Armory Free Theatre in quite some time, and had forgotten how much I like that gritty, concrete black box of a performance space. The room is tough to find as it it tucked behind what looks to be a classroom door, on the outer edges of the military drill hall, and amidst Army and Navy ROTC offices. Considered an architectural feat when construction finished in 1914, it seems appropriate to stage Henry V in a space that housed more than 2,000 soldiers during WWI. A class project outside the regular Krannert Center for the Performing Arts theatre season, the production served as a workshop text and Shakespeare primer for the newest crop of MFA students. The large cast was dressed in a palate of grey, blacks, and purples, all wearing black jeans and combat boots, gesturing to the wartime context and at times blending into the surroundings. On the bare black stage a number of Original Practices strategies were at work: cross-gender casting, mixed period costume, continuous action for overlapping entrances and exits, and multi-purpose props, among others.

To make this one-hour Shakespeare play work, the greatest aesthetic intervention were the cutting choices. All of Hal’s major speeches were kept as well as the extended descriptions of the power, movement, and imagination of theatre by the Chorus. Cut were all the culturally specific characters and elements, the things in the play that locate playgoers in an England of a particular moment and stresses the localized effects of warfare. These are admittedly my favorite parts of the Henriad, the bits where you get a sense of the London panorama as well as the fact that war can only be glorified in the abstract and never the quotidian. However, I don’t have a problem with significant cutting in this way because, like a sculptor, it allows the medium to pose a new question, take on a new form.

The 1914 groundbreaking of the Armory building on the University of Illinois Campus

Without complex mise-en-scene competing for our attentions, the speeches become the cornerstone and heartbeat of the action. Rafael Sears as the English solider Williams imbued his speech of resistance to the disguised king with a thoughtful desperation and avoided the petulance with which it is often performed. Jordan Coughtry gave the most successful performance of the Salic law speech I have ever seen. A complex and sprawling legal lineage of why right to France is passed through her princesses, it has oddly always brought the first scene of the play, immediately after a rousing descriptions of all the places we’ll go with by the Chorus, to a grinding halt. In Coughtry’s hands, a playful pace and emphases on figures of speech rather than individual diction got that speech to establish the stakes of the play without putting us to sleep. While his emotional pitch was at times out of sync with the rest of the ensemble, alone for Hal’s prayer before the Battle of Agincourt I could have wept for yet another successful portrayal of desperation within the theatre of war.

In addition to stripping down the space, with only black boxes to signify thrones and chalked labels on the walls to denote which side England and which side France, so too was the persona of Hal-now-King Henry V literally dismembered for parts. No signal actor played the role, but rather each actor played kingmaker to another by sharing the crown that marker the speaker of that part. Some of the other parts will similarly dispersed, but none marked with a prop, which might be better described as a puppet considering the ventriloquizing animation associated with its stage function. It was a thoughtful choice, underscoring the aspect of Hal’s character that performs the identity that his immediate audience needs. Sometimes a Protestant monarch, sometimes the city playboy, sometimes the warlord. It is a part for which the method approach is often confounded because a possible psychological profile is difficult to pin down, and perhaps it is better that way.

the cities
turned into a maid; for they are all girdled with
maiden walls that war hath never entered.
— King of France, V.ii.3303-5

In this production, the sense that all identity is performative (in the Butlerian sense) is reinforced by the fact that this our protagonist and title of the play is embodied by multiple performers. As the head and representative of England, it also suggests (in an oddly conservative way) that it takes not the imagined but the real community of the nation to produce the effect of sovereignty. Williams makes this gruesomely clear: “the king himself hath / a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and / arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join / together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at / such a place'” (IV.i.1980-4). The parts of the ensemble of the army that come together in the afterlife to ask Hal, was it worth it? Was this idea of nation worth it? As a primer to both metatheatrics as well as Shakespeare’s innovation upon the History play genre, this trim version of Henry V provided space for these MFAs to meditate upon what it is they think conjures the performance event, to test these new words within the girdle of the Armory’s walls, and for audiences to posit the half of this play that contemplates theatres of war in the abstract.

  • For tickets and information about future Illinois Theatre productions, visit the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts website here.