How often do you read about an exciting opening night in London and enviously wish that you could have been there?
Well sigh no more -- or at least sigh a little less heavily -- because a documentary that airs on PBS on Nov. 5 actually gives you a great deal of the feel and flavor of attending a live performance of Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe in London, which opened to much fanfare earlier this year.
The pity of the whole thing is that the hour-long documentary, "Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe," includes only the fourth act of the play, and an abridged fourth act at that. To see Mark Rylance's Henry deliver the "Saint Crispin's Day" speech to the weary soldiers in such a believably colloquial manner, minus the swashbuckling tactics with which it is usually served up, merely whets your appetite for the entire performance.
The all-male cast is uniformly excellent, with Matthew Scurfield as Exeter, David Lear as Gloucester, and John McEnery as Pistol being shown to especially good effect.
The documentary combines the performance of Act IV with rehearsal shots and opening gala footage. The gala took place on June 12, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. "Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe" manages to capture the two most exciting things about being an audience member at the Globe: the look and feel of the theatre itself, all oak and white plaster, with shafts of sunlight streaming in from the opening atop; and the visceral sounds of the pre-show "combatants warmup," which segues into the play's thrilling opening -- the entire company of 15 walking onstage two and three apace, all playing drums or beating sticks in a crowd-rousing rhythm best described as a "mechanical heartbeat."
For the June 12 gala performance only, Zoe Wanamaker joined the company to recite the famous Prologue ("O for a Muse of fire..."). It was altogether fitting to have her on-hand for the festivities: Her father, the late actor Sam Wanamaker, was the visionary who tenaciously fought to make the $10 million theatre a reality.
The documentary is full of insightful comments from the Globe's actors and creative team. Rylance, the company's artistic director, talks about the painstaking care that has gone into the making of the costumes, right down to the hand-stitched shoes, and other actors talk about the emotional experience of working in such close proximately to the audience -- the "groundlings" are standing literally inches away from the stage (and in any given performance, audience members actually shout out to the actors, especially during references in Henry V to Scots and Welshmen).
"Nearly 400 years ago a man named William Shakespeare, right near here, wrote these plays and somehow these plays made it to Lubbock, Texas, in 1970, and I was able to read them," says Steven Skybell, one of two American actors in the company.(The other is Christian Camargo, who made his Broadway debut last season in Skylight.)
"I have made a journey back to where those plays were originally done. It's like a pilgrimage," says Skybell.
And now, with the magical powers of television at its best, we can all soar with the eagles and make the pilgrimage with the actors.
The air date is Nov. 5 10-11 PM (ET) on the PBS "Great Performances" series. (Check local listings for times elsewhere.)
-- By Rebecca Paller