The film H4, premiering this Saturday at Indie Memphis, moves a pair of Shakespeare's more accessible history plays — Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 — into the 21st century and measures their relevance against a contemporary African-American experience. That's a tall order, and it may not even be the most interesting thing about this Kickstarter-funded experiment starring Harry Lennix as the titular H. The script, adapted to the screen by scholar/screenwriter Ayanna Thompson, preserves Shakespeare's language but deviates far enough from the letter to challenge purists. Director Paul Quinn's brave embrace of theatrical device and nonrealism should be an inspiration, and possibly even a model, for filmmakers looking to tell huge stories with miniscule budgets.
Although they delve into politics and warfare, the Henry IV plays have all the elements of a classic coming-of-age story. Henry Bolingbroke, played by Lennix in an eye patch, has never made peace with the fact that he took the crown by force, killing his predecessor, Richard II. To atone for his sins, he'd lead a crusade in the Holy Land, but as king he's too caught up in the business of staying king, as border skirmishes break out and old friends become bitter rivals. Worse, instead of preparing to become king someday, his son and heir is too busy whoring and carousing with thieves and lowlifes. The artists collaborating on H4 have moved the play's action to Los Angeles and transformed the "Prince of Wales" into the "Prince of Watts."
Shakespeare's mostly preserved language is frequently tweaked, with the odd modern reference. Falstaff calls for a cup of "malt liquor" and a capon. Another scene is set with the line: "This is Inglewood, not Guantanamo Bay — there are no hooded men."
Translating Shakespeare to the big screen is more challenging that it might seem because so much of the rich descriptive language becomes redundant and cumbersome in a photographic medium. This is why relatively modest attempts like Joss Whedon's recent take on Much Ado About Nothing, which was shot primarily at the director's home, can have so much more life than Kenneth Branagh's lavishly appointed and famously uncut Hamlet. H4 shifts between scenes filmed in the graffiti-covered streets of L.A. and scenes shot on an essentially bare stage and in the dressing room of a theater, a convention that allows modern rivals toting switchblades and baseball bats to fight it out with swords and medieval bludgeons in slyly self-conscious displays of stage combat.
Because it was originally performed on a bare stage, Shakespeare's words set the scene, and Quinn, Lennix, and company have capitalized on this, making it work in a way that may remind some film fans of the narration in Jean-Luc Godard's sci-fi experiment, Alphaville.
Much ado has been made of Lennix's dedication to H4, a film that the Shakespeare aficionado has described as a labor of love, but he's one player in a strong ensemble that includes Keith David, Heavy D, Amad Jackson, and Geno Monteiro making a star turn as Hotspur, the rebel knight.
Saturday, November 2nd, 9 p.m.
Playhouse on the Square