Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Chair wars at Agincourt

(Photo: Andrew Alexander)

I dread festival seating anywhere , but particularly in Hades.  It's a competitive city and this spills over into their arts scene.  The Resident Fan Boy says this reaches its epitome during the annual summertime Chamber Music Festival where patrons will line up for hours to acquire a painful pew (concerts are usually in churches) a shade closer to front and centre.

So, last evening, the RFB, elder daughter, younger daughter and I set off with two camp chairs and a large blanket, so that daughters could sit at the improvised footlights near the makeshift stage while their parents sat in relative comfort a bit further back.  A fast-and-loose interpretation of Shakespeare's Henry V by the Company of Fools was in the offing.  We'd been looking forward to it for weeks, and for the past four summers, have had no problems with the seating arrangements, which are first come, furthest forward; blankets in front of camp chairs.

Two little wrinkles, though.  This was the only presentation we could see of the production before younger daughter and I depart for Victoria and it was opening night. ( Those were not the wrinkles; we usually attend opening night for much the same reason.)  The show fell, unusually, on a holiday Monday because Canada Day fell on a Sunday, which meant we were dealing with Sunday schedule buses which, in turn, meant we arrived at Strathcona Park in Sandy Hill about forty minutes before showtime.  So, for the first time, we found ourselves with the opportunity of setting up our chairs in the front row.  Directly ahead of us was the swathe of lawn designed for those willing to sit on blankets, a long string demarcating the performance area.  Two Adirondack chairs were front and centre behind the "blanket zone"; these were festooned with crepe and  a length of bungee cord was spread on the ground in front of them with the ends curving around the sides.  A bit confused, I sought out a volunteer to direct us where to set up, thinking the pair of thrones might also indicate where an aisle was to be, as has happened sometimes in the Camosun College Summer Shakespeare in Victoria.

No, the volunteer assured us, there would be no centre aisle and we were welcome to set up our chairs in line with the "VIP seating", leaving the space in front for people who would be seated on the ground.  We settled in, but not before shoving our chairs over to accommodate a lady who also wanted to sit in the front row.  We read our programmes and Scott Florence, one of the Fools' founders, directed camp-chair-sitters further back on our extreme right to move closer in and a form a semi circle.

Things were hunky-dory until the volunteers became occupied elsewhere, and a rather perma-pressed family of three bearing three royal blue camp-chairs set up in the blanket zone on the extreme left.  The RFB and I noted them uneasily, but they were, I guess, far enough to the left to not excite comment.  Shortly afterwards, a well-groomed couple showed up with regal red camp chairs and lined them up with the royal blue camp chairs.  Someone questioned this, but the very blonde lady loudly announced that the blue bungee cord was clearly only meant to pick out the VIP chairs.  This was the signal for an elderly lady seated a row back to move her chair directly in front of the VIP chairs.  This was too much for the woman on our right who had been discussing the emerging situation indignantly with the RFB.  She scurried off in search of a volunteer, who returned, and gently got the new line of chairs to move back --- but only a few inches, and still firmly in front of the chairs that had been there first.

Now a middle-age couple strode in and set up their small wooden collapsible chairs smack-dab ahead of the Resident Fan Boy and me.  We knew swift action was needed.

"Excuse us," we said firmly, with some support from the indignant woman next to us.  "We were told to put our chairs back here; that area is designated for blankets."
 Wooden collapsible lady looked at us in disbelief, her confusion, no doubt, not helped by the half row of camp-chairs to our left.
"These are very small chairs," she protested.
We persisted and the couple backed down and set up over to the right, directly in front of some other people who had arrived earlier, but didn't care to press the point.  It was true the couple's chairs were small, what are called "low profile" by those who sell them, but I noticed the lady's head was at the same level of those behind her; she was rather statuesque.  I still think they were being rather unfair to the people who had gone through the trouble to come earlier, but no doubt they were quietly discussing how unreasonable we were being.

A trio of older people set up their blanket at the feet of  the Resident Fan Boy and Indignant Woman.  They apologised for sitting there, if you please.  The Resident Fan Boy assured them that they were in the right spot and Indignant Woman added mischievously:  "We've been waiting for you..."

I don't enjoy standing up for myself, so my nerves were still jangling when the play began. I was worried that the pre-show drama would overshadow the play itself, which began when a man climbed into a chest in the stage, begged us not to give him away and disappeared as a quartet of giggling women, also dressed in sky-blue golf-shirts and plaid Bermudas ran up and looked at us questioningly. 
"He's in the chest," called a quisling from the crowd, and when they gingerly lifted the lid, the man sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and proclaimed:  "O, for a muse of fire..."

The play had begun, one of William Shakespeare's history plays (which have more to do with propaganda than history), and the five actors, four sock puppets, and one talking stuffed bear took on more than twenty-five parts to tell the story of the warrior king Henry the Five and the Battle of Agincourt, through songs, nursery rhymes, swordplay, cross-dressing, puppetry, and in the true tradition of Shakespearean theatre, really, really bad accents.  We knew the French were the French because they had pretty hats and accused us of smelling of elderberries.  We knew Fluellen was Welsh because he (well, she) had a large leek drawn on his (her) chest. We figured out that MacMorris was Irish through geographical references and frankly, I'm not sure what Captain Gower was supposed to be because I couldn't place his/her accent. (Captain Jamy is supposed to be the Scots officer but didn't seem to get a look-in in this version.  For what it's worth, I think the accents were bad on purpose....)

So how do you make Henry the Fifth palatable, accessible, and even a wee bit comprehensible to an audience that ranges from preschoolers to people who have been alive a long time?  The Fools use humour whenever possible and for them, that's most of the time.  The result was indeed very funny, sometimes unexpectedly touching, and occasionally surreal.  For example, when the trio of traitors Cambridge, Grey and Scrope were executed for their treachery, they helpfully hanged themselves by raising the nooses over their heads and leaning a little, and singing "The Big Ship Sails on the Alli-alli-o".  The murder of the pages was shown through the dismemberment of the stuffed bear puppet, done in a cartoon-like fashion so that the children in the audience would have no doubt that this is play-acting.  But the reaction of King Henry to the slaughter was not drained of  grief and horror and when the remains of the puppet were tenderly put in a tiny black coffin and borne away with a mournful song, it was genuinely sad.

Margo MacDonald, a co-founder of A Company of Fools, played Henry absolutely straight and the stirring speeches "Once more into the breach..." and "We happy few" were just that, enthralling.  Perhaps her biggest challenge was the courtship scene in which she wooed Simon Bradshaw, the sole male cast-member who was decked out in ringlets and clearly channeling Lucy Van Peldt.

By the end of the play, all seating silliness was forgotten and loud cheering ensued. The caps were passed and I made sure our contribution matched the fun we'd had on a rather lovely summer evening in a beautiful park seeing a play that was, after all, not that far from Shakespeare intended.
That's what I'd like to think, anyway.

And the VIPs?  They turned out to be nice people.  The wife was a prize-winning journalist, so, in the line-up for free ice cream,  her proud husband promoted her, and I madly promoted elder daughter and.... 

Gee, I've been in Ottawa too long.


Lisa Guidarini said...

Who'd have imagined such a ruckus at such an event?! Love the way you described it. I'm not at all familiar with any of the Henry plays. I'm not sure I've even read/studied half the Bard's works. At school, usually you get treated to the same plays in college as you did in high school: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear (my personal favorite), etc. But I always confuse the Henrys, anyway. Sounds like loads of fun, though. I'd definitely attend something like that if I had the chance.

Persephone said...

It was a pretty quiet ruckus, Lisa, we Canadians so desperately want to be liked!

A Company of Fools is, in my humble opinion, the best thing about theatre in Ottawa, and I'm speaking from a city with a good theatre scene and, as the national capital, regular access to national productions.

If you want a palatable "in" to Shakespeare's history plays, try Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V which had a hand in making him famous outside Britain. Then, for fun, compare it with Laurence Olivier's HV which is a handy bit of WW2 propaganda. Oh, and have you heard? BBC is doing a Shakespearean history-cycle of Richard II (the one that upset Elizabeth I), Henry IV (both parts) and Henry V, with (be still my heart) Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and a whole much of other amazing British actors???