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Reign of the King

Kate Petelle | Thursday, August 25, 2005

This weekend marks the final performances of “Henry V” by Summer Shakespeare at Notre Dame. The show, produced by Notre Dame’s Paul Rathburn and directed by William Brown, a well-known Chicago theatre director, showcases the talents of both professional and student actors. It began its run Aug. 9 and will conclude with a matinee performance this Sunday.”Henry V” is Shakespeare’s retelling of the historical events surrounding the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War between England and France. The play follows the actions of the young King Henry V of England as he strives to prove himself, persuading his country of the merits of the war, leading his soldiers to battle, demonstrating his abilities as a military leader and as a King, and becoming a national hero. As the audiences watches the portrayal of a young prince growing into a king, the many facets of the play are revealed. Though the play is in many ways a celebration of the English nation and the achievements of one of the country’s great heroes, its relevance to today’s audience lies largely in its complex take on war, revealing both its glory and its savagery. “Henry V” is full of the grand rhetoric of war and nationhood, but Shakespeare is also careful to show the sometimes-selfish motives behind the actions of war, the questionable morality behind the invasions of other countries and the sorrow that accompanies the glory of battle. The play is not exclusively pro- or anti- war, but rather both at once, making it interesting and relevant to audiences in 2005.Putting on a production of a history play is “much more complex” than the romances and comedies that Summer Shakespeare has produced in the past, Rathburn said (past shows include “Romeo and Juliet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Tempest,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Taming of the Shrew”). “Henry V” is alternately serious, humorous and sad, and there is even a wonderful love scene at the end. “Henry V” marks the sixth season of Summer Shakespeare at Notre Dame. But the roots of the project extend much further back. In 1983, Rathburn began teaching a Shakespeare course for Notre Dame’s London program which emphasized the importance of Shakespeare in performance as well as in text. The class saw a production of every play they read, and actors were invited to speak to the class about the experience of performing Shakespeare. Back at Notre Dame, Rathburn began a course called “Shakespeare in Performance,” in which students put on four plays each semester. He began taking students to Chicago and Ontario to see Shakespearean productions and did a Shakespeare film series on campus. In 2000, Rathburn founded Summer Shakespeare at Notre Dame, with the goal of producing high-quality, professional productions. Summer Shakespeare has become a staple at Notre Dame and in the larger South Bend community.Summer Shakespeare brings in professional actors for the major roles but incorporates Notre Dame students in supporting roles. Both students and professionals are handpicked. Over two hundred professional actors expressed an interest in this year’s show, and many students from a variety of majors and backgrounds attended the open auditions. In the end, this year’s show employed nine professional and ten student actors.Students who participate in the program have their summer housing provided and are given a stipend for living expenses. More importantly, the experience of working for four solid weeks, six days a week, with fully professional actors and designers in a high-quality production of Shakespeare is a wonderful experience for the students. As for the professional actors?”They love coming here,” Rathburn said. “They love the atmosphere. We’ve never had an actor who didn’t want to come back.”This summer’s show is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this is the first full Shakespearean performance in the new DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, and it takes full advantage of the stage and the possibilities that the new theatre holds. The lighting, stage and costumes are “brilliant,” and all original music was composed specifically for this show. “Henry V” is a particularly fitting choice for the first Shakespearean play performed in the new theatre; in 1599, Shakespeare’s newly-constructed Globe theatre opened with the first performance of “Henry V.”The play opens with a direct reference to the new theatre and to the need for imagination in creating scenes of battle on the stage: “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?… Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts … Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.” Moreover, this season is significant as it is Rathburn’s last with Summer Shakespeare. Though he will remain on the advisory board for the program and may lecture at Notre Dame from time to time, Rathburn will introduce a Summer Shakespeare performance as its producer for the final time this Sunday. But the institution he founded six years ago will remain and continue to grow. “It’s my legacy, my gift to Notre Dame. We say that we want to be known for more than football. How about Shakespeare?” Rathburn said.