Henry the War I

Henry the War I. That lesser known play by Shakespeare.. Ok fine maybe not, but let me explain.

Today I popped into my old primary school, where my church back home meets, to be greeted with huge montages of war artwork. On closer inspection I decided it was depicting scenes of WWI (sketched in charcoal by a local artist). It’s that time of year again just before the schools shut shop for the summer for school productions. For this school in Ely it’s the annual leaving play of the young year sixes. When I left I remember being blacked-up to play a boy of Fagin’s in an all singing all dancing production of Oliver! the year before they’d done Romeo and Juliet that happy ol’ let’s embrace the future play of Will’s. Great though Oliver! was (my sister recently performed in a production of that same play at her secondary school as ) and maybe it’s the Dickens or the catchy songs but I think it might be one of my favourite musicals. Please, can we have some more? The problem is Dickens, musical or otherwise, is still bound by strict copyright. Now I’m no expert in this area but I’m pretty sure that 450 years later Shakespeare isn’t around to check who’s plagiarising of performing his plays. I think Shakespeare is pretty safe ground. Plus it’s an easy fallback if nothing else, the plays are ready and waiting. Its almost as easy to assemble as a pot noodle. Ok maybe not quite. But acting out Shakespeare is a brilliant way in for children into his stuff.

But back to Ely and the local primary schools scenery. Artistic stuff isn’t it:

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Whilst having a bit of a jam on my saxophone before the service this morning, my mum and I debated what production the school might be putting on this year. We thought we’d got it nailed narrowing it down to either Private Peaceful or War Horse clearly Morpurgo was on the mind.. It seems not. Whilst WWI does feature we were in the wrong century for the play. It turns out the school are doing a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (yes he did write a play about that king too, having skipped Henry VII clearly he was too boring to write about) set in WWI. Yes that’s right. Now mixed reactions greeted this news. A few raised eyebrows here and there and a few “yes I know, I’m not sure how it works either”. I don’t know, unfortunately I’m not around to see the production but I think mashups, or adaptations as the more academically inclined might prefer to term them, can sometimes be really effective. Not always, for instance I went to see the RSC’s headlining play of the season Roaring Girl a couple of weeks ago which took a renaissance play, set design placed the play in the Victorian era, and it also featured rap songs and Lady GaGa. Yes let’s modernise but maybe pick a period and stick with it. Just seemed a little mishmashed but don’t let me put you off some people loved it. Great play just strange mix. Equally take productions of Henry V which feature the Iraq war inquiry or even DiCaprio’s gangsta Romeo and Juliet sometimes transporting the setting of a play can do powerful things and add new dimensions. With the anniversary of WWI receiving heavy coverage to rival even Shakespeare this year it seems appropriate. Why not kill two birds with one stone and hit both anniversaries? Surely the question should be, why not?

Besides people are questioning in fact some are pretty certain that Henry VIII is not all Shakespeare anyway. So why not add another dimension?

Go and check it out, it’s at St Mary’s Junior School, Ely. They do good productions. I recall my sister’s leaving play a few years ago now of Macbeth where some scary looking witches stole the show. All dressed in black and white it was macabre but powerful. Spooky stuff. Though Henry VIII can lay no claim to Scottish-play-style spookiness he did have a love for the axe. His wives didn’t fair too well either under his hands, in fact you need two hands to count them all on. He also loved a good fry up, any excuse to eat and Henry would find it:

“He was a man
Of an unbounded stomach”

Something I’m sure there was plenty of going on in the trenches. I wonder why Owen and Sassoon didn’t mention it!

Why not, Henry the war I the lesser known Shakespeare play could be a thing of the future. Premiering at Ely. You heard it first here folks!

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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