Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Scene Unseen

The Artifice of The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (1944)

My first introduction to Shakespeare, at school, was a bit of a jumble. Each week our class would crowd into a tiny television room huddled about a 26” set whilst the teacher showed us sections of Zefrelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Polanski’s Macbeth, various BBC productions and what most captured my imagination, Olivier’s Henry V. Not the whole film, just the opening section in which the director, underscoring the artifice of the prologue, shows us Elizabethan London and a recreation of The Globe with the opening scenes of the play being performed before the braying crowds by actors (we even see the man about to play Henry just before he steps on stage). Despite being of an age that was distracted by Transformers and girls, I was thrilled and captivated, and understood somewhat, for the first time the world in which Shakespeare was working.

Watching years later with more critical eye, I can see that those opening scenes are more obviously models, the transition from miniatures to sets more apparent. Yet their power hasn’t diminished and Olivier’s motive, to bring the audience into the story through varying layers of authenticity even clearer. The Globe falls away to reveal interior sets modelled on medieval paintings, then exterior sets and then in a thrilling burst of reality the Battle of Agincourt with its sweeping tracking shots lenses at the verdant expanses of County Wicklow in Ireland. If years later, Ken Branagh’s version would take that reality a step further by introducing gallons of mud and blood and shouting, Olivier’s interpretation of the battle is the one I’d like to believe in, with its shiny armour and clearer manners.

Created as a morale booster during WWII, Olivier knew that he had to present the text lucidly, accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Part of his artifice also included cutting many of Henry’s darker moments, no hanging of traitors here, no threat to pillage Harfleur, and the dark foreshadowing of the events in Henry VI are cut. But in these circumstance they’re not missed (though I expect that some Shakespeare scholars would disagree) and it’s refreshing to see a version of the King who can act as a symbol for goodness and must have done in those darker times. Too often these days we’re desperate for our heroes to have grey areas in an attempt to make them more “interesting” when sometimes it can be “interesting” that they lack a moral ambiguity. The director won a special Oscar for this achievement. Quite right too.

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