If anything good has come out of seven months of social distancing, it’s the wellspring of creativity that affordable modern technology has enabled. That includes Phoenix Theatre’s generally successful short-run production of Shakespeare’s seldom-performed history, Henry VI, Part III, created via Zoom and delivered to audiences on YouTube.
Setting the scene
Because Henry VI, Part III follows parts I and II, this production began with an original prologue—poetic, but decidedly more modern than the Bard’s text—to frame what the audience was about to watch. This was helpful, but because I wasn’t expecting it, it took me a moment to figure out what was going on, though I might have gotten more out of it than the miniature action-figure battle scene that immediately followed. (No, I’m not kidding. You can see a sample here.)
But the prologue to the play (which dramatizes the War of the Roses, a decades-long fight for the throne of England between related Houses of York and Lancaster) wasn’t the only way the Phoenix production helped establish a sense of time and place in this production. Each scene included a hand-painted backdrop projected behind the actors. (Given the quality of the video, I’m guessing Phoenix also supplied each of its actors with a green screen.) We may have gotten the same vantage point for each character in each scene, but the backgrounds made sure that they were all in the same place in a way that would not have been clear had all the actors appeared with their own homes as the backdrop. In addition, interstitial cards evocative of silent films flashed on screen between scenes—presumably to enable actors to change costumes, and to make sure everyone had the right background loaded before they turned their cameras on—helping make sure the audience stayed rooted in the action.
Digital pros and cons
With no physical programs to hand to their virtual audience, the Phoenix production team cleverly displayed the actors’ names on screen during the prologue and curtain call, and their character names during the rest of the show. (Given that most modern Shakespearean productions involve double- and cross-casting, the character name addition was especially helpful when an actor I’d watched die in a previous scene reappeared on screen.)
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth Zooming. At least twice, actors turned their camera on too soon and entered a scene they weren’t meant to be in, and once or twice there seemed to be a slight lag that resulted in longer-than-preferred pauses between lines. Eye lines were also strange at times, as when an actor delivered a line to their right when the character they were speaking to appeared to their left on the screen. This is really hard to nail on Zoom—even big celebrities are struggling with it in their virtual interviews on late-night talk shows—so I can’t hold it against the cast. But with Zoom’s newly added feature allowing hosts to choose the order in which participants appear, it’s possible that this can be addressed in future virtual productions.
Never an easy show
There were a few moments, though, when the Zoom production entered the uncanny valley: the show’s (many) death scenes. Director Michael Hajek devised a conceit in which characters who died on screen slowly tilted toward their cameras, staring unblinking into the lens as an unsettling chord played. I think this was meant to convey the highly personal nature of the deaths in the play, but ultimately I found myself laughing at the campiness of each death.
But Henry VI, Part III isn’t exactly an easy show to produce, even in a real theater. It is not a show that many in the audience are likely familiar with, and unlike some other histories, it features very little comic relief. I’ll forgive this production its awkward death scenes and instead applaud the cast for making less the grief of the pandemic by performing real, live theater.
Image description: a video camera in the foreground points to a simple diorama of a battle on a white tabletop, with pointy black paper mountains and tiny plastic soldiers painted red or white.
What, When, Where
Henry VI, Part III. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Hajek. Streaming via YouTube October 9 through 11, 2020, from the Phoenix Theatre. Thephoenixtheatrepa.com.