In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report on the premiere of Chicago Shakespeare’s Tug of War: Foreign Fire. Here’s an excerpt.
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It’s become common—even fashionable—to mount Shakespeare’s history plays in bulk. From Edward Hall’s “Rose Rage,” in which the three parts of “Henry VI” were packed into a single five-and-a-half-hour span, to the four-night “Henriad” (“Richard II,” the two parts of “Henry IV” and “Henry V”) that the Royal Shakespeare Company recently brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music under the portmanteau title of “King and Country,” such festival-like productions have the signal advantage of supplying a wider context for each individual play. And while they require a not-inconsiderable investment of time—not to mention money—the current vogue of “binge-watching” consecutive episodes of arc-based cable-TV series like “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” has accustomed viewers to grappling with extended narratives over relatively short spans of time.
All of which bodes well for the success of “Tug of War,” in which Barbara Gaines, the artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is presenting six of the history plays in two installments. The first installment, “Foreign Fire,” consists of her own adaptations of “Edward III,” “Henry V” and the first part of “Henry VI,” all performed by a 19-actor ensemble in a single six-hour span that is interrupted by a 45-minute dinner break. (It will be followed in September by “Civil Strife,” which comprises the second and third parts of “Henry VI” and “Richard III.”) Sure enough, Ms. Gaines herself uses the word “binge-watching” to describe the effect of “Tug of War,” but to me it feels more like the theatrical equivalent of an exceptionally well-done Shakespearean TV miniseries, though a more pertinent comparison comes no less readily to mind. Boldly drawn, slashingly direct and as fast-moving as an arrow whizzing toward its target, “Foreign Fire” is everything that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s much-ballyhooed 2015 marathon stage version of “Wolf Hall” should have been—and wasn’t….
Ms. Gaines has an ulterior motive: She has edited and directed “Tug of War” in such a way as to turn the history plays into an antiwar statement. If you cut your Shakespearean teeth on Laurence Olivier’s flag-waving 1944 film of “Henry V,” you’ll be surprised by the way in which she leaches the glory out of her combat scenes. Nary a sword is drawn all night long, and the emphasis goes squarely on what old-time warriors called the “butcher’s bill.”…
Yet “Foreign Fire” never stoops to can’t-we-all-just-get-along Pollyannism. Indeed, Ms. Gaines is true to Shakespeare in suggesting that war, hideous though it is, is also an enterprise to which well-meaning men are somehow irresistibly drawn, a tragedy we seem doomed to repeat—and repeat—in spite of ourselves, or because of ourselves….
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for Foreign Fire:
The Battle of Agincourt sequence from Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V. The score is by William Walton: