CHICAGO—Anniversaries are wonderful excuses for obscure or ambitious productions, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater combines both four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death in Tug of War: Foreign Fire, the first half of a marathon revival that includes Edward III, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. The main draws here are Edward III, which was likely co-written by Thomas Kyd and is only now becoming part of the official canon, and the three Henry VI plays, which are rarely produced and unfairly maligned by Shakespeare scholars.
In Brooklyn, the RSC just completed their own Henriad, titled King and Country, and seeing the two productions in succession is a wonderful lesson in the ways the same material can serve entirely different ends. In King and Country, Henry V plays British redeemer as the roguish Prince Hal transforms into the Christ-like figure who will unite a fractured nation. Foreign Fire, however, continues that story, and their Henry V is shadowed by the foresight of failures to come. Whereas the earlier production centered more on the men who held the British crown, this one takes a decidedly historical stance, demonstrating the caprice of the gods and the fickleness of foreign rule.
Here the kings wear paper crowns. The battles are rarely staged, and when a character dies, he smears an ashy paint across his forehead, rises, and leaves the stage, creating a ghostly effect; dead kings bear white diadems and view the action from upstage, frustrated by their inability to influence events and occasionally uttering pronouncements from the afterlife. The sum impression is that director Barbara Gaines, who cuts many of Shakespeare’s domestic scenes, has a circular view of the British monarchy: the victories of Edward III (Freddie Stevenson) will be lost by Richard II, and the territory gained by Henry V (John Tufts) will fall back to French hands under Henry VI (Steven Sutcliffe).
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Foreign Fire is that its cast of nearly twenty is consistently strong: few major Shakespearean productions are able to find adequate leading actors, let alone supporting players, but everyone here is comfortable with the language and its meaning in a way that is depressingly rare. Mr. Tufts, in particular, is an excellent Henry V. His St. Crispian’s Day Speech is subdued, which is both unusual and faithful to the text (after all, Westmoreland has just bemoaned, “O that we now had here / But one ten thousand of those men in England / That do no work today!”); surrounded by five or six companions, he really means it when he says, “We few, we happy few.”
However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is one major problem with Foreign Fire. For some inexplicable reason, Ms. Gaines has decided to punctuate, bridge, or accent scenes with contemporary music. While her house band nicely underlines some key moments, there is really no need for renditions of Tim Buckley and Richie Havens, which almost always feel disruptive. And with so much text that already must be cut for the sake of time, why include these unnecessary additions?
Still, Foreign Fire is ultimately a success. Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with the kings depicted onstage and thus would have been aware of the irony and double meanings that litter the plays. By combining one hundred fifty years of British history, Ms. Gaines recreates these contexts for an American audience today, so that we, too, will see, for example, the emptiness in the plays’ most chauvinistic moments—moments that are often quoted with sincerity out of context (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”). In effect, she has brought us closer to the mindset of an Elizabethan theatergoer than any single production ever could. The result is utterly triumphant. Bardolators, rejoice.