“Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention…” Those thrilling words in the prologue to Henry V presage the magnificent ones to follow as Shakespeare unfolds a story of England’s glorious days when that king conquered France. Aye. “Invention.” Because more fire is needed to convey what happened thereafter. Henry VI. The meek young king. His story swirls with horrid struggles for power, with treachery, with confused alarums and excursions. Indeed invention is needed to convey such complexities as nobles cross swords across the vasty fields (Henry V again) of France and the sceptered isle of England. To do so, Shakespeare parsed his pageant into three parts. Each one continues the narrative. So much is in there, in fact, that a daunting task awaits whatever theatre magicians aim to do when taking on the complete task.
Now two universities and a professional theatre company unite to confront the challenge. The title: A War of Roses. A two-part invention conceived by Nebraska Shakespeare’s artistic director Vincent Carlson-Brown along with UNO and Creighton theatre directors professors D. Scott Glasser and Amy Lane. Part 1, Foreign Flames, appears at UNO and Part 2, A Fire Within at Creighton.
Sixty-eight characters appear on two stages, portrayed by 41 actors, the majority of them students. Most have multiple roles, with a third of each ensemble being professional actors, alumni of the universities. Nearly every character from Part 1 appearing in Part 2 is played by a different actor.
This massive undertaking has been two years in the making. Glasser, Carlson-Brown and Lane had long wanted to come together in a project that would use all of their resources combined in something that would have been difficult, nay impossible, to attempt alone. Actually producing all of Henry VI has been an enduring dream of Glasser’s. He was motivated due to this infrequently produced collection of plays appearing rarely, not only because of the challenge of the immensity, but also because most companies want to stick with Shakespeare’s most famed works.
Why now? “It’s timely; look at the world situation,” Glasser explained. “This parallels what our country and many others have been engaged with. Wars that seem to have no end.”
“It resonates today, especially in American politics” Lane added. “England is a house divided. The story is about a country turning on itself. And, think of Jack Cade.” Cade surfaces in Part 2. A real-life figure, here seen as a charismatic, bitterly comic oaf, he wins public admiration and, without prior experience governing, leads a rebellion against the established order.
No doubt the collaborators bore in mind the famed words by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
In short, the French want their country back after Henry V dies. Inspired by a young woman, Joan La Pucelle (aka Joan of Arc), they exploit the confused, unwary and fragmenting alliances among the occupying English, taking advantage of new English weakness underscored by the frail new king. The English alliances and counter-alliances and the constant shifting of power cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Two families, identified by white and red roses, are the main contenders: Lancaster and York. The Yorks eventually take ascendency, with Richard III on the throne. The time: 70 years of the 100 Years War.
The details of what happens are indeed complicated. Fear not. Program notes amplify, including family trees. Plus Carlson-Brown has created a new character, “Time,” the narrator “who tells what happens between here and there.”
The costumes differ in how contemporary or period-like they are in the productions. “We did lots of research about the period,” Glasser explained, “and decided to move away from that towards a theatrical suggestion, a silhouette, outlines in black and white using contemporary materials.” Lane chose to represent the clothing of 16th Century England. “We feel that our play is very much about that specific time and place, dealing with real people in real history. It allows the references to that history to make sense.”
This does not suggest any conflict of opinion between the two directors about costuming, but rather that the directors made decisions on how best to interpret their own productions, including basing them on the separate resources on hand. As for casting, students from UNO and Creighton mingle and perform together across the borders of time, space and campuses.
One major agreed-on decision from the start was to use cross-gender casting. In Foreign Flames ten women take on men’s role. For A Fire Within 15 do so. The principal reason was practical. Creighton has far more female Theatre students than it has men. But there was also mutual agreement, Carlson-Brown said, that there are so few women’s roles even in the original texts, that such gender imbalance works against the purpose of student training.
Equally, all three felt the desire to show a woman’s perspective. “After all, the few women in the plays are so strong,” said Glasser, “including the powerful and complex Queen Margaret and Joan La Pucelle, that we wanted to expand that concept. But how much does gender matter? This is living theatre of today.”
“This is something like color-blind casting,” Lane observed. “We looked at this very carefully and considered changing gender where it made sense.” Both say that casting was based on the ways that work best for the students. After all, students are three-quarters of each cast.
Clearly Carlson-Brown had a major task in combining the original texts and story-line in a dramatic, yet practical way, so as to get the essence of the stories, the characters, the language. He welcomed that. In fact, he’s been working on this idea for his UNO Theatre Arts master’s degree.
He chose to rearrange the three original Shakespeare plays into two, with his own titles, rather than simply refer directly to the three parts of Henry VI. Two themes dominate, the wars in France and then among the English themselves. “I wanted to tie them together, to make sure that we were echoing the cycle of conflicts.” Consequently, he’s transposed parts of all three originals to try to create a clearer narrative and to focus the reconstruction around major characters that are central to the most significant plot developments. Some “recalled through memory or nightmare.” He has retained the original historical time-line.
Moreover, Carlson-Brown has included a few speeches from Henry V—the famed prologue mentioned above, and text from Richard III, along with a fragment from Elizabethan Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
Glasser also pointed out that this undertaking serves as a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. “A celebration would be a better way to define it,” Glasser said. Lane further called it a celebration of their universities. And Carlson-Brown found cause to celebrate his company’s 30th anniversary.
Glasser evidently always felt that the best way to make Shakespeare’s “ungainly” material play dramatically was to come up with an adaptation such as this. Already knowing Carlson-Brown quite well, admiring his insights and talent, the connection seemed serendipitous. With Lane’s input from the start, they became a team. Re-working the new texts has stayed an ongoing process, all the way through rehearsals, with Carlson-Brown on hand as dramaturg and “playwright in residence” sometimes making alterations aimed at improvements.
He’s been coaching the student actors on how to play the texts. “We want to unlock the syntax and language, which are tricky, and to make them as accessible and as great as they are. This is also one of the major reasons we involve professionals performing alongside them.”
“This is truly an academic adventure,” Lane added, “given that we want to make sure that the students especially grasp the wonderful language and give it its due. The language conveys the essence, the thoughts, the feelings, the story.” This is her story and Glasser’s and Carlson-Brown’s. A new collaboration. Perhaps history-making in its own right.
A War of Roses-Foreign Flames runs Nov.3-13, Weber Fine Arts Building, UNO, 6001 Dodge St. Thurs-Sat. 7:30 p.m. Sun. 2p.m. A War of Roses-A Fire Within, Nov. 11-20, Lied Center, Creighton University. 24th and Cass, Thurs (11/17), Fri. Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun. (11/20) 2 p.m. $5-$16. Parts 1 & 2 combined 11/12 & 11/13, $15-$30. Visit nebraskashakespeare.com.