Theater Review: “Richard II” and “Henry V” at the Shakespeare

With Richard II and Henry V, now in repertory at The Shakespeare Theater Company, there is an interesting contrast on what makes an effective leader. Whereas the former falls due to mismanagement and frivolous spending, the latter is an inspirational hero, one who can rally beleaguered soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the production mirrors the traits of the respective kings. Richard II is effete and intellectual, a traditional production in which language is the primary focus. Henry V, on the other hand, is a more dynamic work – coupled with several comic scenes,  it can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with the histories.

The plays are the first and last of Shakespeare’s tetralogy and detail a tumultuous time in England’s history.  Before the action of Richard II, the king (Michael Hayden) has already secretly ordered the death of his uncle. The secret assassination is the Elephant in the room as Bolingbroke (Charles Borland) quarrels with Mowbray (Darren Mathias). Richard II banishes both men, and uses Bolingbroke’s absence as an opportunity to steal from his father (Philip Goodwin). Understandably vexed, Bolingbroke strategically uses Richard’s war with Ireland as an opportunity to usurp the throne. Soon Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV, and banishes Richard to the north of England, where assassins take his life.

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Henry V is far more triumphant. After the Dauphin (Tom Story) sends Henry (Hayden) an offensively mocking message, Henry is ready to invade France. Despite a foiled assassination attempt and warnings of Henry’s military prowess, the French remain unconvinced the Englishman has a shot at victory. Invasion is imminent after the Duke of Exeter (Derrick Lee Weeden) makes a final appeal to King Charles (Goodwin). Later Henry goes in disguise to gauge the attitude of his men before his victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Upon establishing peace, Henry has an adorable courtship with Princess Katharine (Rachael Holmes). The members of the Chorus inform the audience the peace is short-lived, as Henry VI squanders his father’s victory.

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With extensive casts and actors playing multiple parts, the repertory invites comparison of the talented actors. Michael Hayden is convincing as both Kings. With an emphasis on consonants, his Richard is serpent-like, even a little effeminate. In the closing acts, Hayden’s portrayal becomes more elegiac, and there are tragic dimensions in spite of the character’s shortcomings. Borland is a strong counterpoint to Hayden. As Bolingbroke, the actor has the gait of a bold leader, and speaks with righteous confidence, particularly as his usurpation gains appeal. There are a number of other strong performances, particularly from Ted Van Griethuysen as the complex Duke of York, yet the cast never develops into a cohesive whole. This could be the fault of the play itself –  it’s entirely in free verse, characters are more prone to pontificate. Careful attention to the poetic language is its own reward, but I found myself adrift the moment my focus lapsed.

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Aside from the feat of memorization Hayden underwent, his portrayal of  Henry is a revelation. Already a more likable character, Henry is shrewd and funny, and it’s rewarding to see how he caters his rhetoric to whomever he’s speaking. It’s no surprise he’s the most engaging when he rallies the troops. After his famous “Once more into the breach” speech, it seemed as if the audience, too, was ready for battle. His courtship with Katherine is a reversal from the wartime scenes. The pair delicately flirt in a combination of French and English, and their bilingual shortcomings elicit plenty of laughs. As Northumberland and Exeter, Derrick Lee Weeden is other standout cast member. With a memorable baritone, his deliberate delivery not only commands authority but also is the easiest to understand. The directors must be fully aware of the power in Weeden’s voice, as he’s called upon for speeches both sinister and droll. Unlike Richard II, the cast of Henry V have an easy rapport. The broad characterizations of soldiers and French aristocracy allow quick identification of heroes/villains, and even when the dialogue as its most esoteric, it’s easy to follow the action.

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David Muse, who directed Henry V, uses modern flourishes to engage the audience. The Chorus wears anachronistic costumes, and earn some chuckles as the apologize for the shortcomings of the stage (there’s even a prop gag when a member busts out a laser pointer). Characters climb the stage walls, and at one point, Henry gallantly descends from the upper platform to the lower level. Shakespeare plays feature minimal instruction, yet Muse’s creative stage direction gives us plenty to watch. Michael Kahn, who directed Richard II, is far more traditional in his approach. Short on heroics and high on poetry, Kahn’s approach feels stilted by comparison. Some metaphors, such as when Bolingbroke and Richard have both grasp the crown, are heavy-handed in a disengaging way.

After six hours of Shakespeare, I remain amazed at the playwright’s consistent relevance. The flaws and virtues of Richard and Henry are found in today’s politicians. His dialogue captivates, and the complexity of his characters can inspire hours of conversation. For those Shakespeare nuts who can’t get enough of this stuff (I hope you’re out there), definitely see both plays before production ends in mid-April. On the other hand, if you think Shakespeare is a tedious bore (I know you’re out there), I beseech thee to see Henry V. It’s rabble-rousing entertainment, one that reminds you of Shakespeare’s unique power.

Richard II are Henry V are running in repertory until April 10th. Buy tickets here.

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