Though Henry V remains largely absent from American high school curricula, the last play that Shakespeare wrote about medieval English history is punctuated with familiar verses and patriotic speeches, including the Chorus’s iconic opening, “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention!/A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”
To aficionados of Shakespeare’s late history plays, Henry V is infamous because it marks the moment in Shakespeare’s major tetralogy when the playwright kills off Falstaff, that brilliant and comic foil to Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I.
Director Stephen Wyman’s staging of Henry V at the Texas Shakespeare Festival (TSF) proved to be exceptionally well conceived and well performed, and benefitted from judicious editing of tedious script portions that address France’s adherence to the Salic law of dynastic succession. This production, like every one presented at TSF for eight seasons, has been wholly enriched by vocal director Jennifer Burke’s rigorous, and individualized, language coaching of every cast member.
Henry V, an epic about war that has much to say about the ideals of kingship and how they clash with the sacrifices of common soldiers, is loosely based on the experience of a very capable English king who invaded France in 1415 to reclaim land lost by England earlier in the Hundred Year’s War.
Whereas Shakespeare’s own Lord Chamberlain’s Men would have ‘modernized’ their staging of Henry V at their Globe Theatre debut in 1599 by appearing in Elizabethan-era doublet and hose, Wyman and the TSF creative team set their show nearly two centuries earlier, around late summer and autumn of 1415. During this time, King Henry roused his troops to wage combat against the French using the immortalized St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt. Rather than transplant Shakespeare’s patriotic tale to a more familiar historical context, Wyman focused on the play’s universal themes using scenic designer Christopher Rhoton’s towering, bare wooden columns that conjured the late Plantagenet-era setting of King Henry’s court in Southampton, England, and King Charles VI’s dominion at Agincourt, south of Calais, France.
At the outset, as the Archbishop of Canterbury credits Henry’s growth into a “sudden scholar,” we surmise that the once-irresponsible Prince Hal has become a king renowned for his oratorical and political skills, facile in waging war to secure England’s future and protect her from the treachery of his former friends, the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey.
During TSF’s penultimate performance of Henry V on July 29, actor Henry Ayres-Brown displayed an impressive mastery of the rhetorical demands of Shakespeare’s warrior king. Ayres-Brown’s portrayal is consistently subtle and restrained, and these qualities appear to be the hallmarks of an inspiring blend of the actor’s own instincts and Wyman’s direction. Ayres-Brown is well cast as a tall, confident leader who is eager to assume huge political risks by invading France and also by listening to his subjects criticize him. In wooing Princess Katherine of France, he humanized his own character to a lively, sardonic effect by playing the humble king against Katherine’s cultural sophistication.
Playing the vulnerable Princess Katherine, Lisa Crosby Wipperling did great justice to the part, and this is important in light of the fact that feminine roles and domestic scenes in Shakespeare’s histories are scarce. Though Wipperling’s role is not large, her scenes provided welcome comic relief and elicited a tender side of her suitor/conqueror.
Nearly every cast member played two or more roles, a common practice within Shakespeare’s own troupe. Most notably, Blake Price (as Bishop Ely, Nym, and Burgundy), Ryan McCarthy (as Cambridge, Fluellen, and the Ambassador of France), and Jacob Offen (as Falstaff, Scroop, Montjoy, and King Charles) displayed superlative powers in alternating between characters of lower and higher social status. McCarthy seemed to master Fluellen’s Welsh dialect and offered a robust performance as Henry’s trusted military officer. Offen was unusually prepossessing as the quietly indignant French king.
Peter Hargrave’s vision of the Dauphin as Henry’s overly haughty rival was especially entertaining, and his figure was nicely enhanced by designer Angelina Herin’s colorful costume.
The play’s subplot features Henry’s former drinking companions from Henry IV, Parts I and II, including Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, and Hostess Quickly. In carrying off these satisfying comic interludes, William Green (as Pistol), Price (as Nym), Mischa Aravena (as Bardolph), and Sasha Hildebrand (as Hostess Quickly) were refreshingly understated, and all refused to over-play the antics of these characters.
Before each act, and as a nod to the playwright’s own self-awareness, the Chorus tells the audience that the stage is a woefully inadequate medium for dramatizing a conflict spanning two kingdoms on opposite sides of the English Channel. In this central narrative role, Micah Goodding offered a robust, commanding interpretation, but on a few occasions Goodding’s gesticulation seemed excessive. This tendency was absent, however, during his solid performance as the Constable.
Wyman’s careful direction came across during the play’s elegant set pieces, including the French Ambassador’s delivery of tennis balls as a gift to Henry on behalf of the Dauphin; the gentlewoman Alice’s hilarious language coaching of Princess Katherine, a scene choreographed exceedingly well by Hildebrand and Wipperling; and Ayres-Brown’s fresh oratorical approach toward the St. Crispin’s Day speech. The actors’ use of slow motion during fight scenes amid flickers of light was well choreographed by fight director Matthew Simpson. The masking of enemy executions behind a large curtain at the rear of the stage also proved to be an elegant touch.
The Texas Shakespeare Festival produced Henry V as part of its 30th anniversary season from June 30 to July 31, 2016, at the Turk Fine Arts Auditorium at Kilgore College in Kilgore, Texas. Visit www.texasshakespeare.com for detials.