Where was he radicalized? The fanaticism of A Noise Within’s Henry V

Where was he radicalized? Henry V at A Noise Within

Photo credit A Noise Within

We all know that Shakespeare’s Henry V is about war. While the play might feature a specious and spurious cause for war (as all good warmongers and their surrogates are wont to do), we are apt to forget that motivating move by the lofty intertissued beauty of Shakespeare’s words, the language he gifts to his Henry that make the enterprise of war about honor, glory, manhood and nation. All of these elements are present in A Noise Within’s production of Henry V (directed by Geoff Elliott & Julia Rodriguez-Elliott). This brisk adaptation gets to the violent and pulsating heart of the matter quite quickly: Henry’s fevered desire to make war on France and the religious fervor that animates this lust for violence.

From its first moment, this production announces not only its ideological investment in militarism, but also, I think, attempts allusions to contemporary crises which affect our world, such as the refugee crisis, global warfare, and increased nationalism. These big ideas are inscribed within the costumes and stage properties accompanying the chorus: merchant marine style peacoats, handheld lanterns, canvas bags stamped with property of Henry V, and kevlar vests. Combined with the dark black cross segmenting the stage, these visual cues proclaim the ideological ambit that the play travesses and affirms.

The playbill makes this explicit, noting: “You’ve never seen Henry like this before. Shakespeare’s world and our world collide to create a modernized aesthetic of the historical warrior and ruler. Our rendition of Henry V gets down and dirty with the art of war as Henry wrestles with what it means to be a good leader and a good man, while nationalism rises and war is unleashed.” Indeed, I suppose I hadn’t seen a Henry like this before, one whose mental faculties are called into question, and one whose religious fervor is reminiscent of the demonic portrayal of religious extremists we have been steadily fed for the last seventeen years: the Islamic fundamentalist. It was strange to watch an English history play, and feel like I had seen this narrative before, only in a completely different context.

For me, this was very much a Henry V that is influenced by the War on Terror. Whether or not this was intentional (and it seems to me not, given the promotional material), this production frames its hero’s quest via the representational markers of a form of religious zealotry and frenzy that is immediately reconginizable, given that the west has been trafficking in it for almost two decades. Indeed, the accumulation of crosses around Henry’s neck as he moves further and further into France, emphasizes the connection between violence and religious belief that grounds this production. What is achieved by using such imagery to couch Henry’s (illegal) quest for the French throne? And even more important for me, can the disgusting violence and threat of existential terror he promises at the gates of Harfleur get erased or even sublimated by the set-piece “hero worship” St. Crispin’s Day speech? If we were to darken Henry’s skin beyond the grime he wears because of the battle, if he were truly a brown man asking other men to die with him for God’s Glory (Allahu Akbar) would we still find him heroic? Would we see his suicide mission as noble?

Photo credit A Noise Within

All of this, then, made the “cute” domestic scene between Henry and Katherine even more disturbing. As he made to woo her, I thought I had stumbled into another play, especially as the audience giggled, laughed, and sighed. Again, I wonder, if the production had raced Henry in more ways, what would the reaction then be, especially, if we left Katherine in her pure white beauty? This scene would then articulate the worst fears of European colonizers and western powers in the War on Terror, because protecting our women from the backwards and atavistic religiousity, patriarchy, and conservatism is one of this war’s operating principles. But perhaps I’m missing the point: that this production highlights the dangers of radical Christianity. While I find that to be just as terrifying and real, given how the creators have framed this production, I think that’s not the point. War is glorious, and white Christian men who wage it are honorable, and we know this because they get the girl in the end.

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