For Delaware Shakespeare’s annual production in Wilmington’s Rockwood Park, they have chosen to take on Henry V starring actress Emilie Krause in the title role – a metatheatrical and intriguing choice that evokes the play’s historical context.
At the same time, the setting is quite ambiguous: primarily represented by designer Bridget Brennan’s costumes, the play’s aesthetic echoes the rustic charm of either the early twentieth-century sharecropper or the early twenty-first-century Mason jar enthusiast. The basic uniform comprises boots, trousers, and button-down shirts, frequently accompanied by suspenders, waistcoats, and hats – all in a neutral color palette heavy on beige, black, and an appropriately military olive drab. Additional garments distinguish the actors’ multiple roles and add a splash of (still-restrained) color. The royal purple appropriately distinguishes the monarchs, with Henry in an intriguing ruffly plum formal coat/wine cardigan and the King of France in a coordinating overcoat; Princess Katharine gets the most elaborate costume, with a patterned lavender bodice/riding coat ensemble. Other touches like the Dauphin’s loud burnt sienna tailcoat or Pistol’s Utilikilt add amusing emphasis to their characterization.
The set, by scenic and lighting designer Joshua Schulman, is deliberately sparse: a good match for a play that encourages the audience to fill in the details with their imaginations. The strings of old-fashioned lights stretching off into the audience echo the old-fashioned setting, while the octagonal platform for the theatre-in-the-round staging recalls the polygonal sides of the Globe Theatre – the Wooden O namechecked in the play. Any other structures are represented by props or constructed solely in the minds of the audience.
The cast does an admirable job balancing their multiple roles, juggling gravitas, comedy, and a game (if not entirely successful) effort at various insular accents. Their performances also play well off each other: Carlo Campbell as Exeter echoes Henry’s confidence with his own suave flare, while Adam Pierce Montgomery reveals the Dauphin as the whiny, petulant kind of teenager he accuses Henry of being. Savannah Jackson makes for a particularly charming Katharine, and her bilingual interplay with Alice (an equally amusing Kristin Devine) is delightful. Jackson also adds some pluckiness for Katharine’s final scene with Harry, showing that though Katharine is inexperienced she is not naïve: she holds her own in their battle of wits and initiates their kiss when she determines his suitability.
As Henry, Emilie Krause provides a strong center for both the cast and the production. Determined and intense, Krause’s Henry truly does seem to have left behind his teenage antics, and recognizes his campaign in France as the chance to prove himself to the world. In her portrayal, Henry seldom doubts himself, but at the doubts of others – whether insulted by the Dauphin, betrayed by treacherous nobility, or questioned by his own soldiers – she gives him a very human mixture of anger and frustration. Further rounding out his character is Krause’s portrayal of the courtship of Princess Katharine: having achieved most of his goals, Krause shows Henry putting aside his usual intensity (if not his persistence) and lets him relax and muddle his way into charm.
Director Jessica Bedford leans into the metatheatrical aspects of the play, substituting the Chorus for the entire cast trading lines, allowing onstage costume changes, and using the audience as a stand-in for the occasional supporting character. In most respects this is very effective, although eschewing stage fighting in favor of the cast charging across the stage yelling does make the audience feel like they’re missing out. The fast pacing works as a callback to Elizabethan staging practices and is aided by Bedford’s thorough yet largely unobtrusive editing of the text, an impressively deft streamlining that still includes the majority of subplots and characters – there is no brutal excision of comic relief here. This editing also makes the production more self-contained and less dependent on the previous plays of the Henriad, aided by choices to show Henry largely unaffected by Bardolph’s hanging or amused at Pistol’s lack of recognition while incognito. While this occasionally backfires – the ‘O God of Battles’ soliloquy is reduced to only a few lines, hardly enough time for Henry to emote anything the audience hasn’t already encountered – for the most part it gives the production a strong sense of immediacy.
Casting an actress as the title role is fully justified by Krause’s talent, but Bedford also uses it to emphasize the play’s contemporary historical context: the reign of Elizabeth I. The play’s opening discussion of Salic law and female inheritance suddenly seems relevant instead of incomprehensible filler; Henry’s rage at the traitors and intense focus on appearing confident and competent allude to the difficulties of inheriting a throne over nobles who doubt one’s qualifications; the desire to connect to common citizens echoes Elizabeth’s positioning as a People’s Monarch. They even get matching dramatic speeches before battles with enormously unbalanced odds, with St. Crispin’s Day an obvious parallel to Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury before the destruction of the Spanish Armada.
The implication – certainly in this production, if not in Shakespeare’s own time – is that for some things it is not gender that matters, but individual worth and talent. That this is a point that can only be made by playing against gender expectations argues that both Elizabethan England and today’s society still have a ways to go. In the meantime, Delaware Shakespeare’s Henry V reminds us just how the work of the talented and worthy is instrumental in changing those expectations.