At the beginning of Richard III, the title character describes the reign of the previous king, Henry VI as the “winter of our discontent,” an apt description of the stormy, bleak, and tumultuous period Shakespeare presents in his Henry VI trilogy. These three plays cover fifty years, reaching from the cold and distant battlefields of France to the bloodied farmland of England. As his ultimate defeat creeps closer, Henry compares the never-‐ending battles to the changeable nature of weather in Act II sc 5 of Part 3:
This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.
Our 2011 production at The New School for Drama combined and abridged all three parts of Henry VI to present the play as an epic whole, to an audience that in 2011 seemed all too familiar with the unrelenting storm of unending war.
To tell this long and complicated story, the creative team combined very simple stagecraft which required the audience to psychologically engage and participate with their shared imagination. We combined such simple staging with complex technology to bring a contemporary immediacy to the production without overwhelming the humanness of the performance. Instead of focusing on the spoken text (not generally considered some of Shakespeare’s best), director Casey Biggs,= and choreographer Shannon Stowe chose to redevelop the material through movement inspired by Butoh Dance, the work of Tadashi Suzuki, aerial dance, yoga, as well as other movement based performance styles to present the fundamental story to a contemporary audience. Looking at those forms, the design team kept our set pieces, props, and costumes minimal. The color palette of the set and costumes was very tight: mostly white with occasional uses of color to draw focus or establish status. For the costumes, traditional medieval and Elizabethan silhouettes, Butoh costumes, and contemporary clothing influenced my designs.
We looked at ways that objects in our world could be used repeatedly, and in changing ways to create new characters and locations within the story. One particular element that worked its way through the entire performance was a large military parachute that the performers manipulated: as the Queen’s coronation robe, as a lowly soldier’s winding sheet, as a supernatural pool to generate an apparition at a séance, as the luxurious hangings and carpets of a Duchess’ chamber, as the divine Joan of Arc’s battle wings. A parachute, built for war and to withstand and interact with nature was the most constant scenic and costume element. The fabric caught the winds and currents as the performers moved it onstage, and this shifting fabric and our white set created dynamic surfaces that the lighting and video designers used for projections and lighting effects. Our music and video projection were mixed onstage as part of the performance, which preserved the human element while employing contemporary technology to create the loud and fiery currents that run through the play. In this way all of the design elements coalesced to create a living organism, a streamlined adaptation that connected incorporated both audience and performers in their imaginations.
Beyond the greed and jealousies of kings, Shakespeare weaves in the discontented populace: the intense grief of losing loved ones to an incomprehensible war, and the desperate attempts of the people to steer the course of the political tempest. As I developed the costume design, I was inspired by the politics of the moment. I looked to the street protests following the 2009 Iranian election, and the way the protesters improvised clothing to show their allegiances (most often by creating headbands and armbands of twisted green fabric torn from tee-‐shirts or whatever else was at hand). This became how our Dukes showed their allegiance to Lancaster or York, with a fabric strip savagely torn in front of the audience from fabric vines, rather than the delicate picking of a rose. For the costumes of the rebellious, disillusioned workmen led by Jack Cade, I looked to the clothing of the rioters that rampaged through London that summer of 2011 after the shooting of Mark Duggan, and the Occupy Wall Street protest that erupted 20 blocks downtown from our theatre during our rehearsal period. The director asked me to look back at the Thatcher-‐era British Punks, and I also researched descriptions of the historical Jack Cade during his march into London. Surprisingly, both favored studded clothing, and thus can be seen in the final costume design. We hoped to capture the sense of social urgency that was palpable in New York City in the fall of 2011 and have the audience feel the political undercurrent that not only reached across the Atlantic that summer, but across the hundreds of years that this play has been performed.
Henry VI (combined) by William Shakespeare
The New School for Drama – October 13-15, 2011
Directed by Casey Biggs
Scenic Design by Caleb Levengood
Costume Design by Rebecca Lustig
Lighting Design by Niklas Anderson
Sound and Video Design by Prism House