Under Hugo Arrevillaga’s exhilarating direction, the performance of 1 Henry IV by the Compania Nacional de Teatro Mexico managed possibly the best of what theatre can do: break down the barriers between actors and audience and engage the provocative realities of our shared and disparate histories. There was no doubt of such accomplishment this week at the Globe Theatre–witness the no less than four curtain calls the company received for each performance. Amazing. So the question is simply: how did they do it?
First, it was a technically bravura performance: from the full and expanded use of stage space, to the woolly costumes and dynamic costume changes, to the sparking vivacity of Miss Gabriela Nunez in more than five roles, to the beautifully choreographed battle scenes, we bore witness to the finest of articulations of dramatized history, British and Mexican, both from the past and in the present.
But technical fineness can as easily build the fourth wall as break it down. The real magic of the performance came from the finely woven fabric of interaction with the audience, culminating in the whole crowd being momentarily transformed into the rag-tag royal army, mere mortals ready to be the food for powder of yet one more cannibalistic economy, as those with power use those without for their own dehumanizing and violent discourses.
The anxious passion of the former criminal rebel Henry Bolingbroke now made the certified King Henry IV here inspired the aggression of the next generation—particularly Hotspur and Hal–and created a sense of induction to violent political histories that is necessary to ensure the future of equally vicious political futures. Ideas of honor and heroism revolve, as Falstaff makes clear, around a nonsensical death-wish that will come to all who pursue it, even while the common people, the necessary raw material to these ventures, would much prefer a laugh and a glass, a good story, and a chance to live outside the fray.
For this play, Hugo Arrevillaga reveals that the poignancy of such politics is not the sole possession of medieval English kings and rebels, nor early modern playwrights, but rather the real stuff of the present moment. In a Mexico ravaged and media-exploited for a critical violence, where both the government and the rebels appear to vie for supremacy in events that bloody rather than build the common weal, the play strikes home with the disturbing hyper-masculinity that binds both cultures of terror.
In Henry and Falstaff’s England, the nation is ravaged by the whims of ambitious men, by strong class division, thievery, double dealing, and tavern excess. The present Mexico has its own problems of state, marked by continued exploitations of various colonizers, destructive economies from within and without, strong class divisions, and the drug wars. In both settings, all manner of violence—against the poor, the local, women, and each other—is propagated by the “manly” few who control or wish to control territories, access, and overall identity. But, as this production of 1 Henry IV makes evident, that dream of the powerful few is also fraught and whimsical, as those of us good enough to fill all manner of pits might find a new, transnational, transhistorical consciousness framed by cultural openness, understanding, and a different, life-embracing brand of heroism.
Finally, there is also the matter of the language, nation, and culture of Mexico, here so beautifully able to bring new life to an old story, but also to bring new audiences to the Globe itself. After the show, I had opportunity to discuss the play with members of the audience from Mexico, Columbia, and Spain. All had a profound appreciation for what the troupe had done: in bringing Spanish to this most English of locations; bringing a superior performance to a large and active crowd, many of whom had never been to the Globe before but who were drawn in for reasons of their own linguistic and cultural histories; and in bringing a real solidarity to that crowd and space for nearly three hours. In all of this, the Compania Nacional de Teatro Mexico showed that this is what theatre can do—reach across time and space, through cool assumptions of nations and cultural birthrights, and do something better: engage us as cosmopolitan agents in a historical process that inevitably binds us all in a community of actors and spectators, encouraging us to step out of the passive role and take up together the possibility of forging histories of a new type. This new cultural and historical making and remaking could still offer the opportunity to create and share a cultural bigness that is less violent, more constructive, and indeed more globally honorable.
Dr. David Ruiter
Associate Professor of English
University of Texas at El Paso