Once More To the Breach!

This past weekend a film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Henry V showed locally. The day of the actual performance was the 600th anniversary of the famous battle of Agincourt, (featured in the play). And as next year is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, which is a big deal for THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE Company, and because it was being filmed, stakes were high.

The artistic director of the company directed the play—always a sign of the prominence of the production. The theater itself is inspired by the Globe. It features a small, thrust stage with all the bells and whistles one would expect from the pedigree. Set, costume, concept, etc. all very learned. The acting was definitely competent. It was clear the cast took their job seriously and reached for the stars.

Yet, as much as I love this play, as much as when Henry yells “to the Breach” I’m typically moved to suit up in armor and charge, as much as the arc of the character and the touch of “Harry in the night” and the love scene at the end brings tears, in this production I was left cold. Slightly bored actually, despite the many things I learned about the show and the history from this point of view.

I’ve seen the play 5-6 times in the last 15 years and it is one of those that makes my heart swell and the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was so puzzling why I felt indifferent. Other films of theater productions have been stunning. So I don’t think that was the problem. But neither my date or I could figure out how we could possibly feel like we just left a history class.

Art is complex, but clearly determined to be worth the trouble looking at all its history and how people have fought to make it and to save it. At its best it is truth-seeking. But its making, its immediate effects, its lasting resonance all not easy to grasp. The day, the environment, the traffic even, the mood of the audience can all have an effect on how it’s received. Our subject matters. Our study matters. Practice matters. The quality and quantity of our media and tools can make a difference. But they don’t make art. So what is it that resounds? –The endless question….

Matisse said “Exactitude is not truth”. For him the job of the painter was to leave the essentials of the subject on the canvas. (Perhaps this is why after an all-day painting session he would have his assistant wipe out what he had done only to start with the same model, and the same setting again the next day. It was how he searched for the essential.) So who’s to say what is essential, what is truth and where is the meaning? The artist?   The audience? The critic? The “purse”? The answer lies in a cocktail of the first two—the latter be damned.

The mixture is a mystery. We know the artist must not create to please the audience, however the audience for the painter, just like in theater, in writing and music, completes a circuit—the connection that illuminates. It is mercurial, it is a kind of magic that requires imagination, a desire to express and belief in the process.  As the chorus in Henry V says: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, …. behold…”

Once more, to the breach!

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