Those who exulted in the Shakespeare Theater’s monumental staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 last year may be surprised at how apt Michael Kahn’s very different mounting of its sequel manages to be. Parachute-cloth snowstorms, battlements constructed of naked scaffolding, and a few Monty Pythonish costuming touches make it clear that the director didn’t return to the epic-theater well for inspiration, but his Henry V still drinks deeply of the humanity that made the company’s massive, two-part chronicle seem such an intimate epic.
Where Henry IV began with a huge, crashing sequence of chords and an image of blood-soaked corpses from the previous season’s Richard II, this last installment in the Bard’s historical tetralogy begins more quietly. As the houselights dim, a jeaned, T-shirted cast assembles to hear the familiar prayer for a muse of fire led by last year’s King Henry IV himself, Ted van Griethuysen. Then, to introduce a new Hal—Derek Smith having opted to spend the season on Broadway, and L.A. Law’s Harry Hamlin having stepped into the breach, or his breeches, or whatever—Kahn reprises the Falstaff rejection scene that closed Henry IV on such a melancholy note. Hamlin’s reading of the speech is, if memory serves, nearly identical to Smith’s, even to the little gulp that accompanies his banishment of his former tutor. Then, having completed this graceful bow to his pred-
ecessor, he swiftly remakes the role in his own image.
Hamlin’s Hal is initially contemplative and, as his TV fans will no doubt note, a bit lawyerly. He gives the impression of wanting to hear everyone out before he makes his own views known, husbanding his thoughts so closely that his advisers tie themselves in knots trying to second-guess how he’ll react. This slows the rush to judgment of the play’s first half, when everyone is urging Hal to do battle with the French, but it makes him downright implacable once he’s finally committed.
Not that he’s ever really un-assertive, even at the start—bristling when the French insult him with a treasure of tennis balls, and later having former beer-buddies executed for treason and thievery. But as late as his shrouded nighttime soliloquy on the field at Agincourt, he still seems to be trying to talk himself into fighting. Perhaps to underline the character-defining nature of this internal struggle, Kahn fixes the character in three triangulating spotlights as Hamlin natters on, Hamletlike, about ceremony and kingly duty.
But once the actor relaxes into the “we few, we happy few” cadences of his St. Crispin’s Day speech, there can be no question his Hal has assumed the mantle of leadership. That rousing exhortation to his troops and the Kabukiesque, slo-mo battles that follow are rendered by Kahn as a series of remarkable tableaux, blessedly devoid of the thwacking swordplay that sometimes makes productions of the Bard’s histories look like Renaissance festival re-enactments. Instead of representational fighting, pikes are brandished, staffs pounded into floorboards, and shields whirled until they seem part of some monstrous killing machine. Loy Arcenas’ skeletal set, with its walls of corroded gunmetal and moving bridge, and Howell Binkley’s eerily upfront lighting contribute mightily to the impression of a world gone mad with war. Later, a terrible din becomes a terrible silence, and an exhausted Hal squints at a field littered with corpses, his face slowly registering that his ragtag battalion has carried the day.
Many of Kahn’s staging decisions—from bringing on his actors in street clothes to having them flirt with Story Theater techniques to placing kettledrums in the rafters and white-masked ghosts on the fringes of the final peacemaking scenes—may stem from a desire to distance this production as much as possible from Kenneth Branagh’s recent film of Henry V. Hamlin and Branagh do share a certain square-jawed pensiveness, so wariness on that score would be understandable. I’m not sure it justifies venturing into Monty Python territory to put French noblemen in silly wigs, tunics that look like overstuffed mattress pads, and foot-high platform shoes on which they teeter precariously while chattering away in French (with trenchcoated newscasters translating from the sidelines). But then, I suppose the director had to come up with some way to enliven an entire act’s worth of battle preparations.
He’s on surer footing when dealing less flamboyantly with such characters as William Francis McGuire’s leek-detesting clown, Pistol, Wallace Acton’s separately silly soldiers for opposing armies, and Craig Wallace’s blowhard commoner who unwittingly offers to box the ears of his sovereign. Also providing solid support are Jarlath Conroy as an amusingly proud Welsh captain, and David Sabin as both a deflated Falstaff and the hearty Gower, who remembers Falstaff’s name when others have forgotten it.
Vivienne Benesch’s fetching French princess is a worthy prize for Hal to claim in victory, and her sweet surrender to Hamlin’s expertly clumsy, bilingual wooing counts as one of the evening’s nicer moments. The scene seems to go on longer than I’d remembered, but Branagh’s edited film sequence is probably clouding my recollection somewhat. If your only experience of Henry V is cinematic, much of the play’s second half will come as a surprise, since that’s where both Branagh and Laurence Olivier (in his 1942 film) did most of their cutting.
Seen unexpurgated, the Bard’s most popular history play is revealed as a more complex work than it has ever appeared on film—ultimately more concerned with the interrelationship of a popular king and his subjects than with victory on the battlefield. Shakespeare’s interest in what might be called the “rightness of rule,” is a through-line in the whole tetralogy: a steady progression from Richard II’s portrait of a doomed monarch convinced he ruled by divine right to Henry IV’s portrayal of a kingly usurper who knew he could be challenged and hence struggled to establish a stable kingdom to Henry V’s populist monarchy, where even the lowliest subjects can be seen confronting the king with impunity. The Shakespeare Theater has rendered this progression with startling clarity in the past three seasons, leading its audience chronologically through a hundred years of British history and all manner of theatrical styles. How appropriate, then, that the saga should end with a crowd-pleasing flourish.CP