If you can sit patiently through Robert Richmond's cut-and-pasted Henry V at the Folger, near the end you will be rewarded with the best 10 minutes of Shakespeare theater you might ever see. Getting there can be a long and weary road, though, because even though I admire and know this play so well, the narrative in this production left me befuddled, and the alterations left me bewildered.
Given the talent that director Richmond gathered—a bravo-worthy Henry, an actress ascending career heights in the roles of Katherine and the Boy, a Pistol who knows whereof he comes, a consummate Bardolph, and a thoroughly modern Dauphin, plus Mariah Hale's straight-out-of-Elizabethan-period-paintings costumes—this could have been a Henry V for the ages. However, Richmond's doctoring of the text leaves us with a sausage version of the play, its parts chopped and blended into an opaque conceptual casing.
Cut out altogether is the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech to the court, so we lose the moral reasoning Henry, even in this production, insists he needs to go to war with France. Deleted are both Pistol capturing the French knight at Agincourt and the Boy telling us that the luggage is guarded only by himself and other boys. Their massacre is the reason Henry is "not angry since I came to France until this instant" and orders all French prisoners killed. Instead, we only see the lost Boy on the battlefield killed by an arrow—sad, but hardly meriting executing your prisoners. And Shakespeare's scene of Pistol capturing Monsieur le Fer is more than comic relief; it's the reason we shudder at Henry's order to kill the prisoners. These and many other cuts, major and minor, muddle the narrative without achieving brevity, for the play still clocks in at almost three hours (including a 15-minute intermission).
Richmond's rearrangement of scenes—which he does throughout the play—also comes with consequences. The Southampton traitors scene that Shakespeare placed between the two scenes in Mistress Quickly's inn now moves back a notch so that the inn scenes become one, which keeps Pistol and his fellows from visiting the dying Falstaff. This shift also loses Shakespeare's juxtaposition of the ruffians heading off to France followed immediately by the French King's line, "Thus come the English." That line carries more comical and thematic resonance when it's set against Pistol and Bardolph instead of Henry and Exeter. After Henry leads his army into the breach at Harfleur, Fluellen and the other captains debate on the disciplines of war. Shakespeare follows this comic scene with Henry threatening the city with rape and pillage. Richmond instead inserts Princess Katherine's English lesson between the breach and the threat and overlays the transition of scenes so that Katherine can watch Henry enter the stage. It's a forced juxtaposition. Shakespeare's sequence of good king Henry defying the disciplines of war with cruel taunts to the citizens of Harfleur seems more powerful to me. Richmond also shifts Henry's earnest prayer on the eve of Agincourt to a point between the St. Crispin's speech and the onset of battle, a dead stop in the latter scene's building momentum.
The two long scenes on the eve of Agincourt in which first the French wait out the time and then the English get a little touch of Harry in the night are intercut—we go back and forth from Henry's interactions with soldiers to the Dauphin and Constable joking like Rowan and Martin. This construction is a trade-off in effectiveness: gained, the passage of one time for two armies; lost, the original's well-paced parallel depictions showing the drawn-out agitated boredom of the arrogant French and the drawn-out, agitated trepidation of the weary English—including Henry. The reasons for these and other scene shifts I can't begin to guess, for they don't clarify the storyline.
The gender shifting is even more puzzling. Gower, Fluellen's fellow captain in the original, has been translated into a lusty tavern wench who has the hots for Captain MacMorris. An even more incongruous gender change is that of Bates, one of the soldiers along with Michael Williams who encounters the disguised Henry on the eve of Agincourt. Bates is now a nun played by Catherine Flye (who otherwise turns in precious portrayals as Mistress Quickly and Alice). Williams' speech about the king's reckoning on the day of judgment has been transferred to Sister Bates; maybe that's meant to give it more gravitas, which Flye accomplishes, but I'm certain Louis Butelli playing Williams would have done so, too. Because of this transposition, the eruption of anger between Williams and Henry comes out of nowhere, and then we get a nun insisting the two forestall their combat because "We have French quarrels enough, if you could tell how to reckon." Maybe she's a boxing nun from an English cloister?
More confounding is the persona of Chorus (Richard Sheridan Willis, who, without costume change, also serves as Montjoy, the Governor of Harfleur, Captain Jamy, and Erpingham). He opens the play with his hands bound in a rope, but the next time he appears as Chorus, he's not tied up. Then, in his last appearance, not only are his hands bound again, he is escorted up to a scaffold for this production's third hanging (counting the three traitors at Southampton as one hanging and then Bardolph's). In her program notes, Folger Dramaturg Michele Osherow draws attention to the play's references to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, a one-time favorite of Queen Elizabeth who fell from favor and led an unsuccessful coup in 1601. One of those direct references is Chorus comparing Henry's triumphant homecoming after Agincourt with a forecast (wrong as it turned out) of a triumphant homecoming by Essex at the conclusion of his Irish expedition. Many productions cut these obviously dated lines, but not only are they left in here, Willis's Chorus slows his speech to a snail's pace in speaking them, drawing out stage time that might have been better expended on Pistol. Is Chorus supposed to be Essex on his way to execution? But the real Essex was beheaded, not hung, so I can't be sure.
If Richmond was intending some conceptual message or laying on a specific thematic arc, I have no qualms admitting that it went way over my head. With this Henry V, I felt I had entered an altered universe watching a play I thought I knew so well.
What we can grasp for certain are the performances themselves. Zach Appelman in the title role gives us an accessible Henry, in both his verse speaking and in his portrayal of a king who knows he does not wear the crown by divine right. He had to turn aside the truancy of his youth to earn the crown, and to keep the crown he has to keep his nation prosperous. As he claims that his army's victories owe much to God, Henry proves among his associates and his enemies that he is just a man, one with doubts and fears but one who leads with a confidence that outweighs the doubts, one who embodies a spirit that outpaces the fears.
The key measures of any Henry's performance are not the famous "breach" and St. Crispin speeches; they are his threats to Harfleur and his Agincourt-eve soliloquy. In the former, Appelman presents an exhausted, frustrated king reaching to the bottom of his bag of rhetorical resources to come up with something that will simultaneously strike overwhelming fear in his enemies and ultimate encouragement in his own forces. In the soliloquy, Appelman gives us access to Henry's conscience and soul. But after envying the "slaves" sleeping in their beds back home in England, Appelman's Henry concludes with conviction that they "in gross brain little wots what watch the king keeps to maintain the peace, whose hours the peasant best advantages." Henry's code of duty here is familiar to today's soldiers, who serve so you may sleep in peace. That commitment is the foundation for Appelman's play-long portrayal of Henry.
It is this noble but human king who stumbles through his courtship with Katherine. This is like no Henry V courtship I've ever seen, but much like some courtships I've personally experienced. There's nothing political, nothing coy, nothing glib in Appelman's manner; he's just a guy with two left feet when it comes to mating dances, and, despite his genuine earnestness, he has a penchant for saying stupid things and further botching up trying to extricate himself. By approaching Henry as sincere and with his impeccable comic timing, Appleman unveils multiple layers of humor in this scene.
His partner in this dance is Katie deBuys as Katherine, a Folger star on the rise, taking two bounds into the acting stratosphere in this play with her portrayals of the French princess and the Boy. As Katherine, she is not giddy but studied, not frightened but curious, not naive but clearly the smartest person in the French court. She doesn't toy with Henry so much as she keeps pressing him to clarify why she should love him. DeBuys' Katherine is clearly impressed with Henry's assertion that when France is his and she is his, all England and France and Ireland will be hers. Kudos, too, to Flye as Alice helping when she can and otherwise silently encouraging Henry with her gleaming eyes. King and princess kissing is the exclamation point to this perfectly performed scene, a kiss on the scale of the one that ends The Princess Bride. We can see, feel, and seem to taste the witchcraft in Katherine's lips that Henry notes.
The part of Pistol gets its due in the performance of James Keegan. Pistol, whom Shakespeare first introduced in Henry IV, Part Two, models himself after the great Tamburlaine as written for the London stages by Christopher Marlowe; Keegan, who played Tamburlaine for the American Shakespeare Center in 2011, gets that. Therefore, his Pistol in this production is not far removed from the swaggerer of Henry IV, Part Two, a reading I don't recall ever seeing in any previous Henry V production but one that clearly works. He yet becomes a moral core for the play as he is is on hand when all his Eastchamp companions die: he participates in Bardolph's hanging, he sees the dead Boy, Nym dies while tended by Bates at the back of the stage, and rather than Pistol merely telling us that his Nell is dead, Mistress Quickly's death is represented by Chorus (or Erpingham or Montjoy) giving Pistol the love token he had given her at their parting early in the play. Pistol's last scene is a comic one, though, as Fluellen beats him with a leek, but Keegan then turns suitably sinister—no longer the swaggering Tambuerlaine wannabe—as he decides to become a thief in England.
Counterbalancing the swaggering Pistol in the early scenes is Butelli's Bardolph. This Bardolph is not a cartoon but a man of some sincerity, underlying emotion, and glimpses of intelligence. Rather than appearing pathetic at his sentencing, he darts an accusatory glare at King Henry, who feels the truth of that look and can barely hold up his own countenance. Andrew Schwartz as the Dauphin, with the able assistance of straight man Pomme Koch as the Constable, also dials down the caricature tendencies in which this French prince is often played. Schwartz's Dauphin is smug in an astute way, and we don't sense that he considers life a lark so much as he is racing into politics and combat ahead of his maturity. In a production where sometimes the verse speaking barely has a pulse, Schwartz speaks his lines as life writ large.
As do Appelman, Butelli, deBuys, Flye, Keegan, and Koch. Their performances allow their characters to break free from this Henry V's conceptual and editorial manacles. As the play then soars to extraordinary heights with the courtship of England's King Henry and France's Princess Katherine, we are not left with the what will be that Chorus would expound upon in his last speech, we are left with what could have been with this production.