y Karen Isaacs
Where is Darko Tresnjak when we need him? Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage has, during his tenure consistently directed fine productions of Shakespeare. These have been imaginative and creative while illuminating the plays and helping a 21st century audience to appreciate them.
Even before he came to Hartford, the previous artistic directors, Mark Lamos and Michael Wilson had established the theater as a bastion of good Shakespeare productions.
Unfortunately this production of Henry V directed by Elizabeth Williamson breaks that string of successes. It is a production that neither engaged me nor interested me. A number of audience members obviously agreed; lots of seats that had been filled were empty after intermission.
Henry V follows the new king, who in Henry IV parts I and 2 had gone from a carousing, over-drinking rascal to a man slowly accepting his destiny and his responsibilities.
He is now the king of England in 1415, and he has embraced that role of leadership. He is also about to take the country to war with France over his claim to the French throne. (Remember that the English crown had a strong French ancestry after William the Conquer; not only did some of the kings speak French better than English, England had held territory in France.) So in the midst of the 100 years’ war, he is once again about to send the men of England into battle.
If we accept that Shakespeare was also a playwright who introduced contemporary themes into all of his plays, not matter when they were set, England was facing some adversaries. The succession to the throne was in doubt since Elizabeth I was aging with no heirs; Spain was dangerous, the defeat of the Spanish Armada happened only a few years before; and Ireland was in turmoil.
In the prologue Chorus (a fine performance by Peter Francis James) invites the audience to imagine the various scenes that are to come – the court, the fields of France, the court of France, the battles. It is a famous speech that should set the mood for what is to come.
We begin in the English court where Henry is being urged to go to war; when the Dauphin (think Crown Prince) sends an insulting message, the die is cast. After overcoming a plot by three nobles to overthrow him, he and his army leave for France. In France, the army lays siege to the coastal town of Harfleur which eventual surrenders. After a march to Calais, the English and French prepare for battle; the English are weakened by illness and diminishing supplies; the French vastly outnumber them. But on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, Henry rallies the troops. It is an amazing victory as the outnumbered English destroy the French army, while losing very few men. Peace negotiations ensue; Henry doesn’t get the throne of France but he does get the Princess Katherine as a wife.
Now of course, Shakespeare always included subplots and usually one or more of these involve some lower class drunks and thieves. In this case it is Pistol, Bardolph and Nym who anticipate reaping profits from the war by joining the army. Pistol’s braggadocio adds a comic touch with his attempts to avoid battle at all costs while still insulting others.
Henry V has had two outstanding film versions with varied interpretations. During WWII, Lawrence Olivier directed and starred in version that emphasized the staunchness of the British and patriotism. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film focused more on the dirt, grime and horror of war. In the 1970s, director Michael Kahn produced a controversial anti-war Henry V at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.
Among the many problems with this production is that Williamson’s point of view does not come across to the audience. It seems that many of the decisions she made did not result in an enlightening or effective production.
She sets the play in the round which means that at times, courtiers must turn their backs to the king in order to address all members of the audience; that would never be acceptable. Last year, New York Theater Works did a fine production of Othello that was almost in the round that was very effective; it also was a modern dress production,
A second choice was to minimize lighting effects. For most of the time, the lights are bright and sometimes even the house lights come up. While Shakespeare gives us many clues as to whether it is day or night, it is still disconcerting. Even more so, while the scene with the French on the night before battle is brightly lit and the scene with Henry visiting his men at night is more appropriately lit.
It is modern dress with occasional touches to differentiate characters; since many of the performers play multiple roles on both sides of the conflict, these help only some. It is easy to be confused seeing an actor who just a few minutes ago was a military leader for Henry, suddenly show up as a courtier to the French.
She also cast women in male roles and a man in one of the few women’s roles. While this type of casting can be effective, in this case it really did not work. Perhaps because the play is about rallying troops, the lighter timbre of the female voice makes it harder to accept.
The standout member of the cast is Peter Francis James who does justice to the well-known speeches of Chorus. Baron Vaughn who played multiple roles including Captain Fluellen of Wales and Mistress Quickly also was very good.
The major disappointment is Stephen Louis Grush as Henry. He has excellent credits but Williamson has not made it easy for him. In some of the most important speeches, sound effects or other actors make the first lines almost impossible to understand, even if you know they are coming. His Henry does not seem to have the charisma that would cause these men to win against over-whelming odds.
Even in the scene with Katherine (played by Evelyn Shahr) he misses the lightness and charm of this famous scene.
In the program notes, Tresnjak makes a case for the play being relevant to our times; Williamson does not achieve that.
It is unfortunate when a production of Shakespeare, particularly a lesser known and produced play is botched; too many people already avoid the Bard and this production will not change their minds.
Henry V runs through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.
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