Alright, we get it. Henry V is epic.
The bloodshed, the rallies to battle, the wartime crises. Shakespeare stacks his history play with every element of a modern day blockbuster hit, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company taps into this mayhem with gusto and manly panache. The only thing is, we don’t need this classic to be any more dramatic than it already is. The power is in its language, plot and characters, not histrionics. STC overemphasizes the magnitude of Henry V, which makes for a production that seems over-rehearsed and slightly fake. However, this production should not be missed, solely for the captivating performance of Henry, himself—played by Michael Hayden. Hayden puts life into this production, and as such makes this a show that lives and breathes before the audience: a true example of theatrical magic.
STC rarely fails to impress with the production aspects of their shows, and Henry V, under the direction of David Muse, is no exception. The set, designed by Lee Savage, is in thrust configuration, breathing fog into dark, ominous scenes, with brick walls that look ancient and full of secrets. Impressive amounts of armor fly down during various scenes to represent multiple soldiers, and squares of flickering light represent fire pits across the stage. Set and costume design (Elizabeth Hope Clancy) are carefully crafted and eye catching, with actors in floor-length capes and soldiers outfitted in torn and dirty uniforms. It has an almost movie-like feel with the combination of fog and dramatic lighting by Mark McCullough, accompanied by the artistry of Fabian Obispo’s compositions and Martin Desjardins’ sound design, boldly expressed during high-tension moments. All of these elements strengthen the production, yet they also highlight the weaknesses of the ensemble.
Perhaps it’s due to the lengthy rehearsal period of the show (they’ve been in rehearsal for Richard II and Henry V since November), or maybe the desire to perfect every movement. Whatever the reason, the ensemble looks as if they know every hand gesture, heavy breath and facial expression they’ll convey next. It’s like they’re on autopilot, reacting on specific lines and specific light cues. Hayden breaks this oddly programmed feeling with movements and actions that are fresh. He feels the language and his character, and doesn’t simply go through the motions of being a king. Additionally, Hayden’s emotional commitment to his character is apparent, although his embodiment of Henry V makes his fellow actors look like amateurs.
The highlight of Hayden’s mastery as an actor occurs with Henry’s realization that winning a war comes at a high price. After the battles are over, Henry is left to rejoice in his accomplishments; however, the king soon realizes that the losses on both sides are heavy. As Hayden turns to leave the stage after a moment of quiet introspection, the audience hangs on his captivating silence. He then steps away from the body and exits the stage with a sigh that is felt. Hayden amazingly captures and portrays a vulnerable side of Henry, and this draws us closer to his character: the fearless leader who also has regrets.
Henry’s famous “St. Crispin’s Day” speech is moving. I’d venture to guess most of the audience would follow this king into battle. But it isn’t just the moments of high drama that make Hayden a captivating performer; rather, it’s the unspoken measures discovered and perfectly portrayed by this great actor. Hayden uncovers the subtleties of Henry V, and as such, presents a mesmerizing performance.
With excellent production aspects and a captivating lead, Henry V merits a ticket. The ensemble is, at times, far from believable due to their seeming desire to overly anticipate the drama of Henry V because they so desperately want you to feel the urgency of their positions, but if one dismisses these moments, the focus can be pointed to Hayden—the man who makes this production sizzle.
Henry V runs February 4 – April 10, 2010 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC, 20004. Information can be found at http://www.shakespearetheatre.org