Henry VI Part One
National Theatre Belgrade, Serbia
Director: Nikita Milivojevič
I had the pleasure of seeing and writing about Nikita Milivojevič’s brilliant adaptation of Henry VI Part One at last year’s Globe to Globe in London. Watching it again at the Bitola Shakespeare Festival was just as enthralling but also different, because this performance took place on an indoor stage at the National Theatre. (An anticipated staging at the 2nd-century amphitheatre in Heraclea Lyncestis had to be called off because of rain.) The new space refocused aspects of this deeply intelligent production, illustrating how local conditions transform touring productions into place-specific events. It also showed Shakespeare being continually reinvented as transnational theatrical property.
Bitola changed my experience of the soundscape. The indoor acoustic revealed more clearly how Milivojevič’s company used music and sound diagetically to recast the original narrative and shape the audience’s reception. Rhythmic drumming on the central metal table and high-back chairs and funny battle-calls situated English bluster and French dissimulation within tribal, predatory or burlesque aural scenery. The onstage trio of violin, flute, and accordion became an interactive chorus throughout much of the play. Its sonic responses intensified the rancour unleashed by Henry V’s premature death and gave Joan of Arc’s galvanising resistance spiritual mystique. Upbeat Balkan folkdances mercilessly undercut the solemn parade of English death scenes. The ironizing commentary on national and heroic pretensions accumulated satirical force approaching that of Troilus and Cressida. My favourite moment was when a jaunty rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Milord” mocked Talbot’s humiliation by Joan in combat.
Silences were more audible in Bitola. There is never any real ambient silence at the Globe owing to passing aeroplanes, birds, and street noise. But indoors I realized how the Belgrade company’s fine timing worked to make silences an eloquent part of the dialogue. Joan (Julena Djulvezan) reversed the power dynamic of her (invented) trial by responding with devastating calmness to eight English lords, initially reducing them to dumbshows. They fought back from speechlessness with catcalls and table-pounding, and eventually Joan was drawn into raising her voice in the face of their deafness. But seeing where things were going, she stopped short of becoming the cursing witch of Nashe and Shakespeare’s text. This Joan re-asserted her innocence by slipping silently beneath the table’s open centre to her historical fate.
The polysectional circular table that served for city walls, court trains, and swinging pendulums appeared larger and more active on the smaller Bitola stage. Its separations and re-formations physically tracked England’s political ruptures and French losses. The iconic table also imaged the power-spectacles of politics past and present, propping up macho jokes, outrage, and relentless bad faith of security councils, global summits, and parliamentary grandstanding.
This time I also found myself paying more attention to Milivojevič’s theatrical language of games and sports, used to characterize the mindless competition and face-saving illusions of masculinist politics. Partly I think this was because the actors seemed more relaxed than at last year’s Globe premiere. When Henry (Hadzi Nenad Maricič) forced Gloucester and Winchester to reconcile their differences, their factions filed past each other like teams at the end of a football match, vigorously shaking hands through faked smiles or clenched teeth. Towards the end of the play when Henry accepted Margaret of Anjou (appearing here as a magazine cover girl), he made his choice with a flamboyant game of “I love thee, I love thee not.” The Bitola stage transformed the Globe performance a final time when the clouds of Henry’s funeral ashes, irreverently tipped over by the production’s wonderfully vaudevillian messengers, lingered in the draftless air.
Scholars have often speculated on the effects that the King’s Men’s 1608 purchase of the indoor Blackfriars Theatre as a winter counterpart to the Globe had on the writing and dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s later plays. Watching and hearing this inspiring production in both kinds of stage space suggested the dynamic experiences created by touring Shakespeare then, and now in venues around the world.