Shakespeare’s Henry V on film and dance
Throughout the years, William Shakespeare’s plays have been repeatedly adapted and referenced in popular culture, not only in film, but also in literature, television, dance, music or even video games. The purpose of this essay is to analyse and compare two adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henry V: on screen, with Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V, and as a dance performance, with 2004 Dancing Henry Five, by choreographer David Gordon. The goal is to explore how the two very different forms of adaptation have reinterpreted the text, taking into account their historical contexts.
Since the origins of cinema, Shakespeare has been a favourite of Hollywood and was adapted in different genres. During the 1940s and 1950s, actor and filmmaker Laurence Olivier ‘reclaimed Shakespeare from Hollywood for the British film industry’ (Buchannan 2014, p. 185) and so made his way to becoming one of the most relevant directors when it comes to Shakespeare plays, with adaptations of Hamlet (1948), Richard III (1955) and the one I shall focus on, Henry V (1944).
Sponsored by the British government during World War II, Olivier’s movie is, according to Anthony Davies (1990), not only a ‘morale-boosting film for the Britain of 1944’, but also ‘a cinematic treatise on the difference between cinema and theatre as media for the expression of drama’ (p. 26), as the play is filled with self-references to its own theatricality.
Sixty years later, North-American choreographer David Gordon took Shakespeare’s text and Olivier’s adaptation and created Dacing Henry Five, a dance performance that mixes William Walton’s score, written for the Olivier film, recorded speeches from the same movie, as well as Gordon’s own text. Cutting down the play from five hours to one, Gordon appropriates its themes and ideas and writes his own script, crediting Shakespeare as co-writer. With its very comedic tone, Dancing Henry Five is a postmodern twist on a classic, and the positive reviews it received allowed it to run three times – in 2004, 2007 and 2011.
Olivier’s film can hardly be taken out of context, as it was made during a time of war and national crisis and released just a few months after the D-Day landings. In Peter J. Smith’s words (2003), the movie was ‘an attempt to galvanize a nation at war whose forces, on June 6 that year in the D-Day landings, attempted the kind of assault that Harry’s invading armies conduct in the play’ (p. 163). Thus, at the time of its release, viewing the film was a much more powerful experience due to its inevitable association with the events happening in real life.
Furthermore, one must acknowledge the constraints that went into the making of the film, considering that it was commissioned by the Ministry as a ‘patriotic celebration of Britain’s military strength and resolve’ (Holderness 2004, p. 234). In order to embellish war and present a positive image of the English army and the king, Olivier deliberately cut the scenes from the original script which could dishonour Henry and his authority, such as his threats of murder and rape to the French or any internal conflicts. Instead, the film focuses more on the qualities of the king and his army. The cinematography is a crucial part in such connotations, for it helps to depict a clean and optimistic image of the action through colourful and sunlit scenes. This is evident particularly during the battle of Agincourt, a romanticised and painless fight: Guneratne (2006) comments on how Olivier makes the English troops ‘bright, dynamic, red-hued harbingers of the Renaissance, while their French combatants remain trapped in the pale blues and flat perspectives of medieval art’ (p. 46).
Some modern responses to the film have tried to criticise it for its patriotism or jingoism, claiming that the modifications in Shakespeare’s text are made to excessively romanticise war and the English nation. These responses argue that, ultimately, the film conveys a conservative and nationalist ideology. However, one must not disregard the inevitability of it bearing such values, considering the film was made during a wave of national sentiment as a result of the war.
While Olivier’s version of Henry V is tightly linked to Britain’s involvement in World War II, Gordon’s, created in 2004, can be regarded as a product of Bush’s administration in the United States. On reading the play, the choreographer comments to Times Union (2011): ‘All of it seemed so contemporary – for example, one of the opening speeches is about how war cures deficit. The headlines about Kate Middleton being schooled in royal etiquette and how her job is to produce an heir, she's being talked about in the same way Shakespeare talked about Catherine of France, who married Henry’. Consequently, Gordon’s rework of Henry’s war with France brings to mind the imperialism of Bush’s government and the Iraq war, in a tone of criticism which is evident when Valda Setterfield, Gordon’s wife who also plays the Chorus, ironically remarks that ‘in the middle ages - unlike these modern ages - the king didn't get to send young folks off to war while he, himself, sat safely home in the palace’, or before the battle of Agincourt, when she claims ‘let’s assume nobody wants a war’.
As mentioned previously, Henry V shows self-awareness of its own status as a play, which is especially evidenced by the Chorus’s prologue with its references to the theatre space (‘this unworthy scaffold’ , ‘this cockpit’ ) and appeals to the audience’s imagination. This constitutes a challenge for adaptations such as Olivier’s and Gordon’s, and they both handle it in different ways. As for the former, the problem of self-referentiality to theatre is avoided by setting the first scene in the Globe stage, ‘[drawing] upon the Chorus’s prologue to make the move out from and back to the confines of the Globe integral in fusing cinema and theatre’ (Davies 2007, p. 168). Moreover, the Chorus in Shakespeare’s play offers an unreliable account of events, as there are evident differences between what is said and what is truly happening on stage, with audiences witnessing a king whose actions are not as glorious as described by the Chorus. Olivier, however, corroborates these descriptions by portraying Henry V as the hero, a noble, brave and just king in a righteous war, which fitted the patriotic interests of the British government of Olivier’s time.
Similarly, Dancing Henry Five can also be said to be a meditation on performing arts, shaping our conceptions of dance and theatre using limited resources. Unlike the film, however, it introduces its own new Chorus played by Setterfield, with the following prologue:
At the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare's Henry Five began when Shakespeare's Chorus entered, played by a male actor – actually, there are four roles for women in Henry Five, and forty roles for men, and every role was played by a male actor. Anyway, Shakespeare's Chorus entered, and lamented the inadequacies of the stage and urged the audience to use their imaginations to compensate for that poor theatre's deficiencies. But we here at Danspace, being always used to using our imaginations, need no such encouragement, so I, as Gordon's Chorus, will not bother.
The ironic tone is evident here and throughout the whole play, as Setterfield guides the audience and comments – although she makes it clear that she is only voicing Gordon’s opinions and not her own – on themes such as war and kingship, while being critical of modernity. However, the recording of the original Chorus prologue, taken from Olivier’s film, does play just after Setterfield’s initial speech.
In one review of the performance, Karinne Keithley (2004) describes it as a coexistence of ‘classical modern and postmodern stage styles’, which is evidenced not only by the humour and self-awareness already mentioned, but also by the versatility of the cast and props. The play begins with all of the props piled up in the centre of the stage – tables, chairs, cloths, rubber balls – and the dancers appear in shorts and striped shirt. Most of them play more than one role, just like the same piece of cloth is used as a costume, a carpet for the wedding and even a boat. As a result, viewers get a visual image that departs significantly from the one created by Olivier. Dancing Henry Five, more than a show with its focus on the technical aspects of dance, is an experimental performance of ‘movement as meaning’ (Battista 2007).
As for the battle, one of the things this performance has in common with Olivier’s Henry V is its subtle depictions of war, rather than being brutal and violent. In Gordon’s performance, the battle is abstract, shown through dance instead of literal fighting, and its main purpose is to comment on how the wars in the present, much like Henry’s war, are unnecessary and unwanted by all of the parties involved. Much like Shakespeare’s play itself arguably does, and Olivier does not for reasons already mentioned, military conquests are here portrayed as irrational and absurd. The Chorus, always conveying the director’s opinion, reflects on the contradictory nature of war: for instance, the paradox of how people who go to battle always say that God is on their side, even though only one side of the battle will win (‘I don’t know what the losers say’ she adds); or the feelings of the mothers who do not want their sons to be hurt in war and want them to win, even if this means killing another mother’s son.
Ultimately, both Olivier’s and Gordon’s reworks prove that the themes of Henry V are timeless and reflective of the attitudes of their own ages, particularly towards aspects such as national identity, politics and war. Although the story may be the same, they take very different approaches by giving more relevance to some scenes, eliminating others or making alterations as they see fit, in ways that highlight the concerns of each of them. While Olivier is more concerned with making a film that improves the confidence of the English in themselves and their nation at a time of war, Gordon takes a classic text and twists it to show that it is still timely and can tell audiences something about modern times.