Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Tug of War: Foreign fire

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In this year marked by all manner of celebrations of the 400-year history of Shakespeare’s legacy, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has prepared an entry for the history books of its own with Tug of War. With the inclusion of the apocryphal Edward III as the opening salvo in this pair of mini-marathons through Shakespeare’ history plays, Director Barbara Gaines has made history with these histories, as the play is rarely staged, and certainly has not been included in other recent marathon or redux versions of the two tetralogies, such as Rose Rage (Edward Hall 2004), The Glorious Moment (Michael Boyd 2008), and Breath of Kings (Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha 2016).

The first half of a two-part journey through the histories, Tug of War: Foreign Fire juxtaposes Edward III with Henry V, a play with which
Edward III has sufficient affinities to serve as one of the bases for the claim that Shakespeare had a hand in writing it. Long regarded as apocrypha, related to the canon but not definitively part of it, Edward III has increasingly come to be considered a play that includes Shakespeare’s hand. Descriptions of it are now routinely included in collected works (such as the Oxford and the Norton), but productions of the play are still quite rare. Seeing it in performance is a treat in and of itself; seeing it set off against its near contemporary both in composition and content is revelatory.

Both Edward III and Henry V feature romance elements superfluous to their respective plots’ narratives of English military success in France. In Edward III, the movement is from the king’s romantic distraction with a subject—the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, the Countess of Salisbury—to a focus on foreign conquest, aided and abetted by his (pregnant) queen. In Henry V, the movement is from England to foreign wars in France, which conclude with thoughts of romance with the French princess, Katherine.

At the first day of rehearsal for Tug of War, Stuart Sherman, the scholar in residence on this production, talked about the echo chamber that reverberates through these plays. To some extent that is created by the Sisyphean struggles, over and over, to conquer the same territory, which is then lost, and conquered once more by a subsequent, successor king. The echo chamber is rendered literal on the linguistic plane, however, as successor kings verbally echo their predecessors. Barbara Gaines adds a visual element to these verbal echoes, by placing the predecessor kings back onstage as ghostly participants in the scenes in which they are invoked. So, for example, in the end of part 1 of Henry VI, when Exeter fumes over Winchester’s promotion to Cardinal, invoking Henry V’s prophecy about the false prelate and his power mongering, John Tufts, who portrays Henry V, returns to the stage to recite the prophecy along with Exeter: “‘If once he come to be a cardinal, / He’ll make his cap co-equal with the crown” (5.1.33-34).

In addition to underscoring such verbal echoes between the plays by placing the predecessor king onstage for events traceable to their reigns, Barbara Gaines also uses double casting to draw highlight connections across generations. In the first half of Tug of War: Foreign Fire, Karen Aldridge plays both the Countess of Salisbury and Margaret of Anjou (among several other roles). As the Countess, she teaches Edward III a powerful lesson about loyalty when he attempts to seduce her, and she rebuffs him, offering to die rather than betray her marriage vows. As Margaret, she inverts this dynamic, marrying King Henry VI in order to gain a level of political power to which her birth alone would never have promoted her, and as cover for her illicit relationship with a married lover among the English nobility, Suffolk. Her refusal to accept the terms of peace that Henry makes with the Duke of York, promising the crown to him, rather than to Henry and Margaret’s son, Edward, keeps the civil broils raging between the Houses of Lancaster and York, straight through all three parts of Henry VI, and into Richard III.

In Foreign Fire, the cast is costumed in simple tunics accented with red and blue to demarcate the English and the French, and to identify the various monarchs. The monarchs wear capes emblazoned with their own faces and names, like living, breathing trading cards. These identifying marks are helpful for audiences trying to keep the various monarchs fighting with one another straight, but they also visually signify the extreme self-absorption and narcissism of these kings. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that Henry V, who aligns himself with his troops as all “but warriors for the working day” (4.3.110), is seldom depicted wearing his royal robe, but is most often seen in the modest military garb of all of the members of his army. He does not simply give lip service to the idea of being one of them, he is visually identified as one of them by virtue of his attire.

With the exception of the color-coded capes and paper crowns worn by the monarchs, the palette for the production consists of somber hues of gray, and olive drab. The set is stark and plain, gray mud oozing up from the theater floor to meet the wooden slats of the stage, spaced far enough apart to allow for a variety of smoke and lighting effects. Two tires rest one atop the other downstage, and the entire upstage space is bare scaffolding, with two platform levels. Frequently throughout the production, monarchs are depicted watching battle scenes from this elevated position, remote from the main action on the stage, visually suggesting that monarchs create messes with which they do not sully themselves.

A pile of tires is mounded under the left side of the platform as you are facing the stage. A single, gilded tire is suspended from the fly space over the thrust, glowing eerily as the audience assembles, and lowered in to serve as a throne for various monarchs over the course of the production, while other tires drop in during Henry V to serve as chivalric steeds. As the visual signifier of what these many kings are fighting for, the gilded tire lacks even the appeal of a gilded lily; it’s more like a gilded turd, and the struggle to attain it clearly emerges as a pointless waste of the many lives sacrificed.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Barbara Gaines’s staging of these history plays so full of combat is the utter absence of weapons or stage blood. A simple bit of stage choreography and physical marking is used to indicate the death of a character. As I mentioned earlier, most of the monarchs remain quite detached from the combat that kills so many of their soldiers during the performance. The “death gesture” in performance highlights the fact that Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and Henry V all die of natural causes.

Unlike most performances that have been staged in the Courtyard Theater, this production uses small microphones on all of the actors, so that one can clearly hear their lines through the many explosions that signify battle scenes, and through the music that underscores or accompanies much of the show, which is performed onstage, by a live band. Their full kit is placed under the scaffolding upstage left. Some of this music already has associations with specific wars, such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which dates to the American Civil War. Some of the lyrics come from contemporary popular music, turned to haunting, elegiac effect here, such as Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them…”:

Us, and them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
Me, and you
God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.
Forward he cried from the rear
and the front rank died.
And the general sat, as the lines on the map
moved from side to side.
Black and blue
And who knows which is which and who is who.
Up and down
But in the end it’s only round and round and round.

The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973

I have seen several “marathon” or redux productions of Shakespeare’s history plays at this point, and the effect generated by moving through history in this way is to produce the dizzying sense that the cycle of violence and bloodshed is a perpetual one: “in the end it’s only round and round and round.”

Despite the fatalism in the Pink Floyd lyrics, one of the saving graces in Tug of War is the music. Much war music (like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) is actually quite jaunty, and the cast and onstage band give spirited renditions of it. Another element of Gaines’s production that makes the experience rather more enjoyable than it might seem to watch six hours of warfare (and the unpleasant lead-up and aftermath of it) is her focus on ordinary people. Scenes of French women fleeing the onslaught of the English in Edward III, for example, are retained here, when such moments that do not actually advance the aristocratic plot are often sacrificed in even stand-alone productions of the histories, to produce suitable running times.

In the end, it’s more than round and round and round. It’s an emotional roller coaster that, even after six hours, left at least this theatergoer eager for Part 2, Civil Strife.


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Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest Ameri­can reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.