All of Shakespeare’s plays are timeless, but Henry V endures better than most others. The play’s big themes – war, nationalism, duty, and sacrifice – will always remain relevant. Past productions of Henry V served as prism for the time they were produced: Lawrence Olivier’s 1944 production emphasized heroics when England needed some, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1964 production reflected unease as the country looked toward Vietnam. Now that we’ve inaugurated Barack Obama a second time, the Folger Theater’s production of Henry V arrives at a moment when leadership and character are sharply in focus. Between its grand theatrics and moments of comedy, director Robert Richmond’s vision is darkly cerebral.
Before the action begins, the Chorus (Richard Sheridan Willis) walks on stage with his hands bound by rope. At first, it is unclear why his hands are bound – he pleads with the audience, begging us to imagine that the stage is English’s highest court – and no prisoner would ever share his enthusiasm. Still, Richmond’s costume choice is more than an affectation. He wants us to think about war’s aftermath, whether it’s in terms of a body count or the psychological turmoil it leaves behind. Zach Appelman stars as Henry, and his vision of the character is shrewd and calculating. He’s always “performing” with whoever is around him: he’s compassionate and forceful when he speaks to the Duke of Exeter (Chris Genebach), and ruthlessly exacting when he catches betrayers. By the time Henry takes his weary army to France and Agincourt, there is the sense that the King’s burden is greater than mere exhaustion.
That is not to say, however, that the actors are lacking in energy. Several actors play multiple parts (Katie deBuys plays a boy and the French princess Katherine), and there is consistent flurry of activity on stage. Set designer Tony Cisek uses wooden columns and a pulley system to shift the shape of the performance space: there are moments where the columns feel claustrophobic, and others where the stage is open, regal. Richmond has the actors operate the pulleys, a choice the Chorus would admire since it blurs the line between performance and imagination.
There is an interesting, hilarious sequence where the French princes stand in contrast to Henry, who wanders around the English camp. We’re meant to laugh at the French snobbery (there are multiple jokes about the dauphin’s horse), and admire Henry’s eagerness to understand the common man. Richmond’s direction and Appelman’s performance suggest that this eagerness, not what Henry hears, is what helps become a great leader. This king is a thinker before he’s a warrior, and it’s easy to understand the transition from uncertainty to rabble-rousing rhetoric.
Since Appelman’s Henry is an intellectual who ably wears many hats (or crowns), the comic seduction scene between him and deBuys is seamless. The shift from post-battle glory to timid flirtation is one of the most jarring shifts Shakespeare ever introduced, yet it works because we can see Henry’s gears moving in the same way they did prior to Agincourt. His awkward, clumsy body language compliments deBuys, who is gentler, more demure. The pair has easy chemistry despite the language barrier, and they earn the night’s biggest laughs. It is ironic that their union, so seemingly innocent, comes before a brutal transition of power where tens of thousands of Frenchmen died. Richardson is deeply aware of this incongruity, and the play’s final chilling moments reflect his willingness to push the source material.
There are long stretches in Henry V where the title character is off-stage, and the terrific supporting cast has fun with the play’s sub-plots. As Pistol, James Keegan easily veers from bravado to abrupt compassion to embarrassment. The leek scene is all the more funny since Fluellen (Cameron Pow) really abuses the other actor with the vegetable. Willis, as the chorus and a French messenger, has oily charisma that makes him fun to watch even when he’s in the background. And in the play’s most powerful moment, Louis Butelli adds an uncomfortable level of realism. It’s an ugly scene, one that may resonate more than the Henry’s most stirring speeches.
Henry speaks about the glory of battle, obsessing over the number of dead bodies, yet the visceral immediacy of death interests Richmond more. Several characters die on stage – some are executed, others are slain in battle – and there is always a careful detail so we can fully grasp the ugly business of war. If Henry is a thinker, he must be aware of the consequences of his leadership, no matter how happy victory makes him. For Henry’s V final scene, the Chorus enters the stage as he did at the beginning, with his hands bound. But this time, he has a different fate after his services are no longer necessary. Dispatched quickly, he makes the audience culpable in the play’s purpose. War entertained us, and Richmond trusts there’s enough room in our imagination to think about how that’s more than a little twisted.