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.

Comedy and Humility, Dinner and “The Second Shepherd’s Play”

Completed barely a year before his death, Caravaggio’s 1609 Adorazione dei pastori (The Adoration of the Shepherds) is an important example of the brutal realism of his religious subjects that made the famed painter both innovative and contestatory. Commissioned for the Capuchin Franciscans, he represents divine figures as people of the times, barefoot as they are with ordinary robes and Joseph’s carpentry toolbox barely visible. By seating the Virgin on the ground, Caravaggio implies that she is not a heavenly queen, but rather a simple young mother. The shepherds admire rather than venerate, conveying their worth and that of the parents as commoners. There is no holy light emanating mysteriously from the barn, no ornate halos topping the figures. The chiaroscuro, tranquility, and naturalism of the scene suggests that there was nothing overtly marvelous about the birth of Christ except as an occasion for humility.

Written down in the fifteenth century was The Second Shepherd’s Play, one in a cycle of thirty-two stories from the Towneley Manuscript depicting Biblical events from Creation through Doomsday. In the program to their translation and dinner theatre performance, Dr. Ann Hubert and Stephanie Svarz contend that by recreating the original practice of performing the play in the great hall of a lord during dinner, it “showcases the ways in which medieval drama integrates humor and piety to guide its audience towards a greater understanding of divine mysteries.” The particular episode performed in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Illini Union re-interprets the annunciation of the shepherds by asking the question: what was going on in the life of these herders the day before they were visited by angels. Like Caravaggio, the anonymous Wakefield Master humanized the shepherds and stressed the quotidian in order to contemplate the relationship between poverty and humility.

The three shepherds greet Mary with humble gifts and adoration.

The production was immersive insofar as it was organized ‘in the round,’ spectators sat at round tables in large groups, and it was largely an interlude between courses in a communal setting. Several sheep were played by students in simple white shirts and brown leggings, and they occasionally nabbed a piece of garlic bread or cannoli from playgoers’ plates. The thieving did not stop there, but was thematized by the main action of the plot. Three shepherds complain about hunger and poor sleeping conditions when they are met by a fellow shepherd with a history of thievery. After some debate, they allow him to join their fire for the night. As expected, he nabs a lamb while they are asleep, takes it back to his wife to disguise as a baby, and then returns before his fellows awake. The next day, his yawns give him away and the three shepherds visit his home to eventually discover the disguised lamb. (That the wife is also played by a male actor cross-dressed was a clever meta-theatric touch.) While the shepherds admonish their peer, they find it in their hearts to share some of their meager rations with his hungry wife. Thus, the play associates humility with husbandry and self-governance. The constant discussion of general hunger and menial living underscored the sumptuousness of the buffet meal we as playgoers consumed all the while, cultivating a gradual sense of self-awareness and thanks appropriate for the week before the Thanksgiving break.

Despite the seeming seriousness of the plot and dramaturgical elements, the dialogue was anything but. The swearing, banter, and complaint by the shepherds as an ensemble both psychologized and particularized the shepherds at the nativity. The explicative of choice was the very English-sounding, “By the rood!” (“rood” referring to the tree/cross on which Jesus was hung). When remarking on the singing of his fellows, one shepherd exclaimed “Take out that English tooth and put it in a turd!” Eventually, when they met Mary and her newborn at the end of the play, one cried out affectionately “Hail little tiny moppet!” while another reflected on the babe’s “poor clothes with no pennies” to furnish him. The gifts they brought were equally comic and ordinary, including a neon yellow tennis ball, again suggesting the dearth of the circumstances of all the characters involved. In addition to the Biblical allusiveness, shepherds provide an interesting ecological lens through which to consider temptation: living in the presence of edible sheep every day, they must consider the long-term implications and sustainable income of keeping them alive for wool rather than simply eating them for immediate gratification. Performed during a national discussion on closing our homes and borders to refugees from Syria and the Middle East (one that happens to be taking place during the Judeo-Christian holiday season), this performance of The Second Shepherd’s Play was a timely meditation on both the power and the utterly ordinary necessity for humility.


  • This production was sponsored by the Program in Medieval Studies and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
  • For my Shakespeare Bulletin review of the first of these “original practices” performances at the University of Illinois, Mankindclick here.