You're going to all three parts of Henry VI in three different Balkan languages? Are you mad? That is what I suspect most people would have said to me had I informed them this was what I was up to yesterday. However, after some early qualms when I gathered the surtitles would only indicate scenes and characters I can say it was a fascinating, for long stretches enthralling, day, which I would have been very sorry to have missed.
We started with the National Theatre of Serbia in Part One which they dismissed in two hours. There was some fine Shakespearean delivery from the start with Predrag Ejus's delivery of the Bishop of Winchester's eulogy on the deceased Henry V. Excellent use was made of the set of metal tables and chairs, for sound effects, for emphasising the division of kingdoms, for allowing ambush parties to rise up from beneath and drag bodies to their doom. Indeed one of the things that not understanding the language makes one appreciate far more is the movement and gesture. In this first part I was also much beguiled by Talbot's duel with Joan of Arc (or rather with the whole of the rest of the company), and her trial scene. However the highlight was the comedy turn of two messengers (I think but can't be absolutely certain played by Pavle Jerinic and Bojan Krivokapic). I can't recall how these figure in the original text, but having in the opening scene given us two nicely disputed versions of events in France, they rounded off this interpretation with a mostly mimed summation of the genealogy of the plot thus far – the payoff being that in a final attempt to get everything clear they deploy Henry V's ashes (which sat balefully overlooking proceedings through the rest of the play) as a prop, with predictable but entertaining results. All in all it was an auspicious beginning.
Things did sag a bit in the second installment performed by the National Theatre of Albania. This segment had the least sense of much in the way of ideas about the piece – or at least much being conveyed, the acting did not seem as compelling, and the pacing seemed to drag. There were some nice moments including the solo clarinet, and a nicely characterised hapless performance of Henry VI himself but somehow it didn't quite take off and I was rather glad when the conclusion arrived.
Fortunately, the best was being saved for Part Three, although it is also true that Part Three is a superb play that deserves to be staged more often than it is – although whether it would work as a stand alone piece I'm not sure. This was performed by the National Theatre of Bitola. The company included several standout performances which pretty completely transcended the language barrier. Henry VI's (Peter Gorko) monologue on the battlefield at Towton was harrowing, as were the laments of the fathers and sons. Richard's (Martin Mirchevski) monologue – there was no mistaking the repeated “Stare! Stare!”, Margaret's (Gabriela Petrushevska) all round performance and the dark for bidding manner of Sonja Mihajlova's Warwick (Sonja Mihajlova) were also highlights. Music and movement were beguilingly used. There was on-going piano accompaniment provided by Mitko Ivanovski which suited the mood of the piece perfectly, and battle scenes were stylised dance with telling use of staves (an excellent solution if you don't want to use swords).
I suspect that my enjoyment did benefit from having seen the trilogy in the 2008 RSC cycle which meant that a lot of scenes and speeches remained fresh in my mind helping me to situate myself in the narrative. But I also felt over the course of the day, and especially in Part Three, that Shakespeare transcended language – the emotional punch and in some strange way the lyricism came across despite my technically not understanding a word being said. Again especially in Part Three, I was reminded of the Burgtheater's performance of Maria Stuart at the Edinburgh Festival. On that occasion much more of the text was being surtitled, but I remember then too losing the need for the translation because the delivery was so clear and compelling.
Talking to a fellow groundling in one of the intervals I learned that he was doing the whole cycle. At the halfway point he reported only two duds. On the strength of yesterday I can well believe him. The best advice I can give is to repeat what I said after the Taiwanese one-man King Lear at last year's Edinburgh International Festival. Challenge your preconceptions and try out one of the rich selection of performances still on offer in the remaining weeks. It's a unique opportunity and the odds are very good that you won't be disappointed.
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