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Henry V (Nashville Shakespeare Festival) by Ruisa Hinds

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

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival has been around since 1988 and is a project funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. Their mission “is to educate and entertain the Mid-South community through professional Shakespearean experiences,” and their productions are free and open to the public (although donations are welcomed).

Disclaimer: going into this, I had never seen or read Shakespeare’s Henry V, so I did not have anything pre-existing to which I could compare the performance. However, I was able to read the synopsis in the program before the play, and follow along.

This production of Henry V was directed by Nat McIntyre, and the play was set on a farm in Nashville, Tennessee, during the American Civil War. Tennessee was one of the additional slave states to secede and join the Confederacy in 1861 (1). The production featured tension between two brothers, one a Confederate soldier and the other a Union soldier. To cope with the stress of the situation, the occupants of the farm decide to put on a play. As we have discussed in Fundamentals of Theatre, plays are a form of actualization through representation, and so the fact that the characters were “playing pretend” was perfect because “plays” are the ideal medium for this. The play included two black actors whose roles on the farm might have been as slaves. (I’m not sure that their exact roles were ever stated).  However, once everyone on the farm began to act out Henry V, it appeared that everyone was equal, and race did not affect things such as the importance of the roles they played. Also, when they made the decision to act out Henry V on the farm, the set did not change. Instead, the occupants of the farm said things like “let us imagine horses” and made the noises of what their actions were to be representing (a horse neighing and galloping, for example). To me, this was a true representation of theatre as we discussed in class: patrons of theatre often have to suspend their belief, and see what the cast and crew want them to see.

For this production, the audience could see that everything within the banners and fence surrounding us was part of the stage. Spotlights were not used to follow the actors and make the audience focus on any individuals. Instead, they lit the whole set, and the actors used props to stand out. I found the concept of the farm occupants being the ones to act out the play interesting and somewhat useful, as not all of the European accents were well done, but this was perfectly acceptable as it was just supposed to be a group of Americans playing make-believe on a farm.  Some of the women on the farm, including one woman who might have been a slave, even took on male roles in the portrayal of Henry V. This again showed me the power of theatre to bring people together, to transcend labels and to be an equalizer; a space in which race and sex do not matter.

So why is this relevant today? The Civil War signaled the end of slavery, and almost a century later came the African-American Civil Rights Movement which worked to end legalized racial segregation. However, still today, there are instances of racial inequality. Recently, there have been notorious and high-profile occurrences of police brutality against African-American men such as Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner. However, Nashville is a city that, as Mr. McIntyre said: “doesn’t just have everything, it has everyone”. This play showed that racial and social categorizations can be transcended, and that essentially we are all equal. Also, as someone not native to the U.S., I gained a greater appreciation for this country and state. According to the Vanderbilt admissions profile for Fall 2014, only 34% of the students are from the South (2) — and “the south” doesn’t necessarily mean from Tennessee. Therefore, as there are many students coming in from out of this state and out of the country, they would undoubtedly be interested in learning about this state and city. Centennial Park is within walking distance of all parts of Vanderbilt’s campus and so, this annual Shakespeare in the Park series is a great opportunity for students to go see professionally produced plays for free.

References

1. McPherson, James. “A Brief Overview of the American Civil War: A DEFINING TIME IN OUR NATION’S HISTORY.” Civil War Trust. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

2. “The Vanderbilt Profile*.” The Vanderbilt Profile | Undergraduate Admissions | Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt University. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.

 

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