Sunday, September 25, 2011

Two magnificent Henrys

Laurence Olivier as Henry V - "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!"
Recently, I experienced two examples of inspiring, exciting theater - outside the bounds of a conventional theater.

The first was the 1944 film of Shakespeare's Henry V, which I own because I love the play and because Laurence Olivier was one of the most thrilling actors of any generation. I screened it for myself and daughter Florence because we had tickets to a New York Philharmonic concert that was to feature the second example -- Henry V: A Musical Scenario after Shakespeare, in which arranger Christopher Palmer interspersed William Walton's music for the film and some of the speeches from the play. Christopher Plummer was to appear with the orchestra and I snapped up tickets a couple of months ago. In the last 15 years, I've seen Plummer onstage as John Barrymore in Barrymore, Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra and as King Lear, which ranks as one of the greats. I interviewed Plummer in Toronto around the time of Barrymore and it was a marvelous encounter.

What a joy is was to view Henry V again, to see how one man's vision and passion - Olivier is also credited as director and producer - could create such a satisfying achievement. From the brilliant opening at the Globe theater to the field at Agincourt, the film's visual style moved from realism to the style of the drawings in the Duc du Berry's Book of Hours. Olivier is first seen backstage at the Globe as the actor playing Henry, waiting to make his entrance. His face is all concentration, listening for his cue, but he gives just a little cough - slightly nervous? a little throat-clearing just to get the voice ready? - that makes the actor suddenly very human.

Before he appears, there are a bevy of highly competent British character actors playing the Chorus, the Archbishop of Canterbury, etc., with that ripe British rolling-r type of Shakespearean delivery. But God, Olivier's voice could cut glass. At the climaxes of the great speeches - "Saint Crispin's Daaay!" - there was a ring to his top notes like an operatic tenor's. I saw Olivier onstage twice in London, as Shylock and James Tyrone and from each of those performances, I can still hear his voice - as Shylock, a piercing cry of anguish at the end of The Merchant of Venice when he is forced to convert to Christianity and as James Tyrone, a world of regret as he recalls compromising his artistic ideals for monetary success and wonders, "What was it ... I wanted ... to buy?"

As we approached Lincoln Center, the program appeared to be sold out, since we saw people holding "need a ticket" signs. The Philharmonic and maestro Alan Gilbert opened its program with the Overture and Bacchanal from Tannhauser, then after intermission were joined by the American Boychoir and Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Choir for the choral parts of Walton's score. Plummer, wearing a dapper burgundy-colored dinner jacket, entered to applause. He is 81 and on the first line - "O for a muse of fire!" - his voice was slightly throaty and I thought, "Oh no, he's old."

Christopher Plummer appearing with the New York Philharmonic

Old? OLD? For the next hour, that man of four score years roamed the stage of Avery Fisher Hall, using a wireless head mic, reciting all the speeches from memory. (I had thought he would be at a lectern.) His voice scaled stunning Olivieresque heights in the great rousing-the-troops speeches and Walton's stirring music created a thoroughly satisfying piece of theater.

What great theater we saw this weekend - on a movie screen and in a concert hall.        

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