Mexico’s marvellous I Henry IV

On Tuesday 20 May we were privileged to a screening of the National Theatre of Mexico’s I Henry IV at the Shakespeare Institute. Translated by Alfredo Michel Modenessi, the production was performed at the Globe in London in May 2012 as part of the Globe to Globe Festival, where it was deemed a ‘deliciously muscular’, ‘technically bravura performance’ by its critics.

Henry IV

Dr Erin Sullivan introduced the production which she first heard about when she was working on the Year of Shakespeare project in 2012 – a project which documented the Globe to Globe and World Shakespeare Festivals through a series of audience reviews and responses. The response to this I Henry IV was remarkable and overflowing. Comments included:

Under Hugo Arrevillaga’s exhilarating direction, the performance of I Henry IV by the Compañia Nacional de Teatro Mexico managed possibly the best of what theatre can do: break down the barriers between actors and audience and engage the provocative realities of our shared and disparate histories. (Dr David Ruiter, reviewer) – See more at: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/year-of-shakespeare-henry-iv-part-one#sthash.R2SWM96a.dpuf

In the standing ovation while crying my heart out of pride for being Mexican and seeing a superb performance today #G2G @The_Globe #HenryIV (Twitter response)

This was one of the best productions of a Shakespeare play that I have seen in a long time, by any company. It was obvious from the play and the talk on Monday night that the translator, Dr. Alfredo Michel Modenessi, loves and respects Shakespeare’s poetry. He rendered it into a dazzling Spanish that caught the dynamics of HIV1, a play that so wonderfully blends high and low language. (online commenter)

As Alfredo explained in the Q&A after the screening, the production was designed for street theatre therefore needed to make it work for the crowd. The first 15 performances were played in The Zócalo, Mexico City’s Main Square – a very large public and very political space. With lots of noise, movement and people going about their business one can only imagine what a tough space that was for the actors to work. One could also appreciate that a completely different approach to the text was needed to engage such a crowd.

What struck those viewing the production was the intense energy of the production and the actors’ visible enjoyment at having the opportunity to perform at the Globe. Despite the difficulties of outdoor performances being visited upon them – rain, hail, low-flying aircraft – the production won out. Indeed at the moment when Falstaff declared “I want life” in a downpour of rain, nature’s impromptu stage design seemed incredibly well-timed. That electrifying moment emphasised that, in this production, Falstaff as performed by the marvellous Roberto Soto, was a force of nature that stood for life and the end of violence.

Falstaff

This production played beautifully and viscerally with idea of what Alfredo called ‘the ebb and flow’ of life and the instability of a world stuck in patterns of destructive violence through internecine struggle. The stage was made up of movable wooden platforms that were rearranged for each scene by the actors which visually emphasised this instability. The Lady Mortimer scene was not played in a traditional way as a touching love sceneHenry IV Lady Mortimer but for full comic effect. Obviously, with being a Mexican production Welsh could not be the language used for this scene. The amazing actress, Gabriela Nunez (who played 5 other roles in the play, including all the women!) instead, spoke her own form of gibberish; which reminded me of J B Priestley’s line from Benighted – “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that!” Alfredo mentioned how this scene was criticised for its lack of refinement and for not being truthful to Shakespeare. However, the comedy of heightened emotion was important to the sense of the ebb and flow of action and emotion within the production.

Music was utilised extremely effectively with overarching drum beats and horns adding to the sense of energy. The players were given leitmotifs which also added to the emerging rhythms of the play’s characters and action.

The translation was incredibly faithful to Shakespeare’s text. Alfredo explained how he translated the whole play which was then cut around the number of actors and the time allocated – “a painful experience for the translator.” When translating The Comedy of Errors he had to write a version that could fit 7 actors because, he was told, “that’s all the van will take!” When translating Love’s Labour’s Lost the cast was cut from four lords and ladies to three of each. Let’s face it – there’d be little harm in losing a couple!

With this production of Henry IV what was clear was that the actors loved the stage at the Globe. The company came with the feeling that it was a special occasion – they kissed and slapped the stage with their hands in acknowledgement of the venue and the occasion. Laura Barnett in the Guardian related how: ‘The eight actors clambered down from the stage and stood among the groundlings, arms linked and held aloft, as if in communal prayer: a dramatic moment that set the tone for an engagingly energetic and inclusive performance.’

Our thanks to Erin, Alfredo and the company of Mexico’s Compañia Nacional de Teatro for an inspiring and refreshing take on a marvellous play.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

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