Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2002
It has been a very long time since I have had to think seriously about King Henry V as an historical personage or as a play, and so it was a pleasant surprise at last night’s performance to be reminded that they were both quite interesting.
Shakespeare’s play “Henry V” is really the end of a quartet of plays beginning with “Richard II,” and continuing through “Henry IV,” parts one and two. Some might argue that the series continues with the three parts of “Henry VI” and “Richard III,” but in terms of the story of the man who became King Henry V, the story is told in the first four works. And being the last installment in his life story, “Henry V” is ultimately a play about growing up. We have seen Prince Hal through his wild youth and now we watch that youth dwindle away with the death of Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, and the parallel maturation of Hal’s other cronies, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym. The reckless boy becomes a wise and thoughtful King, whose understanding of the rough and common side of life endears him to his subjects as much as his prowess on the battlefield.
And it is that prowess that first springs to mind when “Henry V” is mentioned. “Once more into the breach!” and the victory on the fields of Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day. Laurence Olivier made his famous film of the play during the harrowing years of World War II as a rallying cry to a Britain once more at war. But Jonathan Epstein’s production currently running on the stage at the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company is completely devoid of the pomp and pageantry commonly associated with this play and this king.
A lot of what Epstein, the design team, and the cast of ten have come up with works very well, it is the overall concept that had me going “huh?” After the first ten minutes I accepted cheerfully that I was watching a story that took place in a world where everyone wore red clown noses on strings around their necks and sometimes on their noses, but I could not tell you why they had those noses or what governed when they wore them. I will quote here the rationale given by Epstein in his production notes. It didn’t explain it to me, but maybe it will for you:
“In ‘The Threepenny Opera’ by Brecht he tells us: ‘Some are in darkness and some in light – and we see the ones in the light, those in darkness we don’t see.’ History is often told as if it were the acts of the well-lit, but it is mostly the unlit who create, suffer, overcome, and endure the events of their time. Our clown noses are simultaneously masks, veils of invisibility, marks of shame, badges of honor, and yellow stars of otherness.”
Similarly Kiki Smith’s costumes represent a fascinating hodge-podge of time and place. They fit the actors and they help the audience distinguish who is playing what role when, but I could not explain to you why or how they were chosen. Like the red noses, once I figured out that this was not a production lodged firmly is a distinct time and place, I was able to enjoy the costumes for what they were and not what they might mean or be trying to tell me.
Not everything in the theatre has to have a secret hidden inner meaning. As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I liked the French wearing outrageous long, curly Louis XVI wigs. And King Henry and Princess Catherine looked dashing and beautiful respectively in their anachronistic fancy dress in the last scene where they were joined by the rest of the cast in a dance number that was a fascinating mixture of the old and the new. It was fun, and there is nothing wrong with having fun at the theatre.
Ten actors – Susanna Apgar, Jason Asprey, Ariel Bock, Allyn Burrows, Henry David Clarke, Jonathan Croy, Johnny Lee Davenport, Carolyn Roberts, Tony Simotes, and Michael F. Toomey – play all the roles, aided by Smith’s costumes to help you keep track of them. They are a talented lot, all of whom have appeared on the Shakespeare & Company stage before, some for many, many years. Burrows mostly plays the title role, but occasionally he gets to double as a horse or some other obscure bit of business. Sculptor Michael Melle has built life-sized, legless horses of steel and straw which function remarkably well when carried aloft by a team of actors. I have never seen a mounted battle staged with such excitement and realism as the fight between Henry and the Dauphin of France at Agincourt.
Burrows has played Prince Hal in Henry IV parts one and two, and is well suited to bring the human side of this warrior king into maturity. I was glad Epstein allowed Burrows to be on stage to hear and react to the news of Falstaff’s death. Shakespeare was remiss in not giving the king any lines with which to tell of his feelings on hearing of his old friend’s death. Even though Henry has put off childish things, including Falstaff, we as an audience wish to hear him mourn his passing as we all mourn the passing of portions of our youth even though they have long since passed out of our lives.
Apgar is an appealing actress, oddly more beautiful in the comic role of Boy than when arrayed in all her finery as the Princess Catherine of France. The Princess is a plumb female role and Apgar plays it with all the fire and fight that Shakespeare intended. Epstein has cleverly staged Catherine’s famous English lesson scene on horseback, so that there is more to watch than just a young woman struggling with the vagaries of a foreign language.
One of my favorite moments in the show was when Davenport, Asprey, Simotes, and Toomey, playing the endlessly feuding and ethnically disparate British troops, are tunneling in to Harfleur. Epstein utilizes the three trap doors in the floor of the Founders’ Theatre stage and has his actors popping up and down, venting their spleen in a variety of outraged accents while wearing miners’ helmets, like a live action game of Whack-A-Mole. The moment when all four somehow managed to emerge from the same hole together garnered one of the evenings biggest laughs.
Croy as Pistol, Simotes as Nym, and Toomey as Bardolph theoretically carry the bulk of the evening’s comedy, but this is a wildly entertaining “Henry V” and the old clowns often seem melancholy hold-overs from the king’s riotous youth rather than comic relief.
Did Shakespeare intend for us to have this much fun at a production of “Henry V”? Who knows. All I know is that after the relentless, over-wrought “Macbeth” I sat through earlier this season, I was delighted to find myself entertained rather than tortured for three plus hours. I suspect you will be too.
The Shakespeare and Company production of “Henry V” will be performed through September 1 at the Founders’ Theatre on Kemble Street (Rt. 7A) in Lenox. The show runs three hours and fifteen minutes including one intermission. I would encourage you to bring young people ages 12 and up, this would be a great introduction to Shakespeare. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.