Watching Shakespeare performed over the past week or so in half a dozen languages I don’t understand has made at least one thing clear: the most successful productions have used physical and non-verbal modes of expression to make the plays connect with Globe audiences. That’s not to say the spoken text in translation hasn’t mattered. Far from it. One of the delights of this festival has been seeing the theatre globally transformed every day, as London’s multicultural communities have turned out to watch Shakespeare in their home languages. But these spectators have also appreciated an emphasis on showing the story, since most are presumably unfamiliar with plays like 1 Henry VI. The powerful visual conception of this early, multi-authored, and eclectic drama of England’s rebellious French conquests and nascent civil wars was just one of many pleasures of Nikita Milivojević’s brilliant National Theatre Belgrade production.
The central stage object was a multi-sectioned metal table that continually evolved as set, soundscape, natural and built environment, and political metaphor. The actors lay motionless on top of the table as the play began. Upstage centre a medieval-style reliquary containing the remains of Henry V sat in one of the high-backed chairs. Slowly the actors awoke to quiet Serbian music — history rising into dramatic life – to establish an initially matey and jokey atmosphere which soon surged into waves of rancorous violence.
With the exception of Joan of Arc (Julena Đulvezan), this production’s emphasis was not on martial heroism or family sacrifice (the operatic deaths of Talbot père et fils were cut) but on national and international group dynamics. Lords and soldiers on both sides were dressed similarly in a medieval-modern mix of rough earth-tone fabrics. The French were distinguishable by their faintly bluish coats, and Joan – the only woman character in this adaptation — by her long country braids. Her controversial spirituality was suggested by inward conviction rather than militant religiosity, her charisma by the power to galvanise French resistance rather than by erotic or demonic connivance. When she defeated Talbot in combat, she wielded the production’s one and only sword with the help of a dozen Frenchmen lined up behind her, joining their arms to hers with the awesome force of a steam engine piston.
By way of compensation for cutting the Countess of Auvergne and Margaret of Anjou, Joan’s expanded trial became a highlight of the production’s second half. In the table’s removed centre section she was cross-examined by the English, first rationally, then hysterically, when they failed to gain any incriminating purchase on her shrewd and level-headed answers. I asked Milivojević about this scene after the performance. He explained that he wanted to make Joan’s trial less one-sided. He therefore inserted French historical reports of Joan’s trial which he had seen dramatised in Luc Besson’s 1999 film, Jeanne d’Arc. The additional dialogue counterbalanced Joan’s crude condemnation in 1 Henry VI, establishing her rather than Talbot as the production’s tragic hero, while also opening up topical associations with Serbia’s recent political history.
Another typical moment of visually adept storytelling was King Henry’s ennobling of Talbot. This followed the signature Temple Garden scene (2.4) in which Shakespeare imagines the War of the Roses growing out of an after-dinner argument in which adversaries pluck white or red roses to signify their allegiance. Here the country’s break-up was suggested by rivals pulling apart table sections and then weaving maze-like to the centre piece where they smeared their foreheads with red or white paint hidden beneath it. The table’s curved segments were then re-formed into a serpentine diagonal on which all the English lords stood lined up behind Henry to greet Talbot at the downstage end. Talbot announced himself with the long list of heraldic titles that, in the original text, Sir William Lucy boasts of to the French when he comes to retrieve Talbot’s dead body. In this temporally contracted moment, Talbot seemed to pronounce his fly-blown destiny at the pinnacle of his worldly fame. While this was going on, Vernon and Basset, supporters of York and Somerset, traded factional barbs and shoves at the back of the line; humorously, Henry and Talbot were oblivious to their commotion. This was emblematic of the way Milivojević heightened the Shakespearian technique of irreverent juxtaposition to decentre the play’s privileged English viewpoint and to suggest the tragi-comic fractures of contemporary Serbian and Eurozone politics.
Earlier Vernon and Basset had helped the audience negotiate Mortimer’s genealogy of York’s dynastic right to the throne by visually mimicking its tangled story of births, inheritances, and betrayals. In the play’s final scene they reprised this kind of pantomime, but now in a playfully serious tussle over Henry V’s funeral urn which ended up fumbled and spilling its ashes. A mock-embarrassed Vernon and Basset tried to sweep these under a section of the now completely upturned table, whose metallic legs suggested the natural and political thickets through which the coming civil wars would be fought.
University Research Professor, Department of English
University of New Brunswick