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Henry V: A Nashville Story of Politics and Brotherhood by Steven Fiske

Posted by on Friday, September 25, 2015 in News, , , , .

With live music, food trucks, and the promise of an evening of good theater, it is no wonder that patrons annually flock to the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. This year’s production of Henry V – directed by recent Nashville transplant Nat McIntyre – placed the final play of William Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy (Osborne 341) into Civil War Nashville. The premise is as follows: “On an occupied Nashville farm a family nurses their wounded Union soldier son much to the disgust of their other son, a Confederate. In order to cope with their circumstances, the family, slaves, and soldiers perform Henry V” (Kraft). Although this updated setting poses some practical challenges for both actors and audience, Henry V draws our attention to what brings us together and is an opportune play for the Nashville community.

The prologue of the play – essentially explained above – was a bit confusing. The actors entered the inexplicably half-charred set on Centennial Park’s bandshell and, without speaking, demonstrate an unknown conflict, which is somehow resolved by a communal reading of Henry V. Only after reading the program did this opening sequence and much of the following story become a little clearer. The play became a little easier to follow as it went along, but between the eccentric Frenchmen and the intense Henry, the play ended without a clear sense of whom we should applaud. Having performed with the NSF myself, I understand first-hand the difficulty of setting any of Shakespeare’s works (particularly the history plays) into a time and place other than Elizabethan England.

However, despite the awkward marriage of the play’s content with this new setting, Henry V is actually a rather timely choice for the NSF. Between the election of our new mayor Megan Barry and the anticipation of a new President in the not-too-distant future, the story of an unlikely king unifying a divided nation is all too relevant in our political spheres, local and national. Shakespeare lovers wait anxiously for the famous “Band of Brothers” speech that Henry delivers to inspire courage in the hearts of his makeshift soldiers, and this message of togetherness applies beyond the edges of the amphitheater.

McIntyre’s decision to set Henry V in Civil War Tennessee, although problematic in execution, amplifies its fundamental message by giving it a specific and local point of reference for Nashvillians. In his own words, “Henry V is a story of reluctant brotherhood” (McIntyre). Even after 150 years, the hostilities of the Civil War continue to linger in our culture. From racial inequality to the controversy of taking down the Confederate Flag in recent news, our country is still patching the unfortunate rifts of a nation divided by ideologies. This production encourages us to reflect on our current status as Tennesseans, our relationships with each other, and the history we share. Transplanting the production onto American soil and bumping it forward over 250 years certainly helps make these thematic points easier to connect.

Resituating the life of King Henry and his battle with the French into 18th-century Middle Tennessee certainly seems like a stretch, but it is this kind of reimagining that keeps Nashville theatergoers coming to Centennial Park year after year. Notwithstanding the challenges of transplanting this production into a new time and place, McIntyre and the NSF help turn a mirror back onto our community and our own power play between politics and brotherhood. Although the conversations productions like this engage are not always easy to have, Henry V encourages us to have them anyway, and each time the conversation starts, we boldly delve “once more into the breach.”


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One Comment on “Henry V: A Nashville Story of Politics and Brotherhood by Steven Fiske”

I think the mention of reluctant brotherhood addresses the worth in updating Shakespeare’s words for a modern American audience. Fiske argues the relevance politically and ideologically within America about how war can both unite and divide people long after the war has ended, with well articulated points on local elections in Nashville today. The problem is that while this Henry play’s themes may be timeless for NSF as a group, that does’t mean the play itself is timeless for the audience. Even more of an issue is the understanding of the audience. The prologue was definitely a main issue in that it set the premise for the whole show but, as Fiske mentioned, was completely non-verbal. If people missed the point and context of this, then it would have been difficult if not impossible to understand any connection what so ever.

While I do agree that there are important conversations that this adaptation addresses, I disagree with Fiske in that the updated context brought out the questions for an average audience member. Sure going to see a play with the intent of analyzing it for a paper or a review, reading the director’s note, and then reflecting in the written word would breed deep questions about society as a whole then and now. However, the average audience member isn’t in that mind-set. Fisk says that, “transplanting the production onto American soil and bumping it forward over 250 years certainly helps make these thematic points easier to connect.” Yet, if the audience literally can’t understand what is even happening to relation to the setting, if the director’s note is needed as justification and guidance to even understand the linkages, then is the adaptation really bringing those seemingly tied and important questions and discussions to light? I didn’t read the director’s note beforehand due to another class assignment, and felt very confused the whole show even looking at it analytically. While an adaptation might be a great thematic fit on paper, if the audience doesn’t get it in the actual performance space then those discussions aren’t being had despite the seeming “relevance.”

Madagan Riley on September 28th, 2015 at 12:34 am

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