“HENRY V : A THEATRICAL REVOLUTION OR FAILED COUP?”

Review by Michael D’Antoni

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“Never was monarch better fear’d and loved than is your majesty,” (Earl of Cambridge to Henry V) 

“Henry V” is a classic drama with plenty of wide open warfare and dialog. In all of Shakespeare we hear in Henry V, some of the most rousing speeches from monarchs, immigrants, soldiers, drunkards alike. Set in England in the early fifteenth century, the political situation is rather tense. King Henry IV has died, and his son, the young King Henry V, has just assumed the throne. Several bitter civil wars have left the people of England restless and dissatisfied. Furthermore, in order to gain the respect of the English people and the court, Henry must live down the reputation of his wild adolescent past consorting with thieves and drunkards on the seedy side of London.

Henry takes charge and lays claim to certain parts of France. When the young prince of France (Dauphin) sends Henry an insulting message in response to these claims, Henry decides to invade France.

Just before his fleet sets sail, King Henry learns of a conspiracy against his life. The three traitors working for the French beg for mercy, but Henry denies their request. He orders that the trio, which includes a former friend (Scroop) be executed. Hence, the English sail for France, where they fight their way across the country against incredible odds nevertheless they continue to win.

The climax of the war comes at the famous Battle of Agincourt, at which the English are outnumbered by the French five to one. The night before the battle, King Henry disguises himself as a common soldier and talks to many of the soldiers in his camp, learning who they are and what they think of the great battle in which they are about to engage. When he is by himself, he laments his ever-present responsibilities as king. In the morning, he prays to God and gives a powerful, inspiring speech to his soldiers. Miraculously, the English win the battle, and the proud French must surrender at last. When peace negotiations are finally worked out: Henry marries Catherine, the daughter of the French king. Henry’s son will be the king of France, as the marriage unites the two kingdoms.

As written, the clarity of this particular Shakespearean play is commendable. Even if you don’t avail yourself of the conducive synopsis and characters-in-order-of-appearance, one should find it easy to follow the simply timeless story. Boy makes war; boy wins war; boy meets girl; boy gets girl.

Keeping that in mind or close to the warriors “breast plate” (if you will), this particular stripped down, bare bones production is revolutionary in story and warfare. Radical in the fact that its rather rumbustious and potentially visionary in its gallant attempt to modernize a most classic story.

But, for all the sudden extreme and complete changes that are often associated with the general act of rebellion, this particular production was more like a failed coup in its struggle to bring “H-V” to this 21st century. Not that the show did not have immense possibilities to do so. I applaud director MARY LOU ROSATO’s instincts which were invariably counter intuitive and artistically brilliant, but her vision unfortunately fails when all collapses largely precipitated by the actors themselves. More on that to follow.

The sparseness of properties in this “Henry V” takes a few minutes to get used to but as I sat back, I found it quite welcoming as there were no extemporaneous distractions to this otherwise eloquent literary opus. However, the opening gambit which has the cast members lingering, loitering and meandering about the stage before the Elizabethan text even begins is aimlessly lost as they sauntered up the side aisles and found their way to center stage. What was further lost, once the dialogue did begin, was the lack of exploration of Henrys reputation of his past consorting ventures.

As the adventure actually starts the show settles quickly into a not so rhythmic groove, whereby it is difficult for the cast to find consistent measures and tones. Actors quickly forget that “Henry V” (the King, as well as, the story) is brazen and rough possessing an inert verve and overt appeal of political theater which should be allowed to explode and flow as purely as it was written.

The oeuvre of Shakespeare, with all its sonorously elegant language that theater goers have grown to expect and enjoy  somehow gets lost here within the aura of this vague and translucent stage production. Many of the actors confused rapid speech and the incessantly spewing of text with the purposeful consistency of rhythmic verse.

Moreover, at times I could not help but feel the actors energy wax and wane through every risk and adventure instead of remaining constant and consistent in the “here and now”, as set and presumptuous staged. I often felt that at one minute I was watching Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera”. Then in the next scene the production morphed into a Sophoclean Greek tragedy, all the while, crowd and fight sequences came across like vague 1960s anti Viet-Nam war protests.

Henry V played by LARIS MACARIO is sullen and unfortunately not the leading-man type or even a natural leader. He oversees a motley crew of soldiers, allies and barflies whose rumpled military garb appears to have come from Old Navy or The Goodwill. If it were not for the crown on his head and this band of hapless men following him whereever he went, one would not even know he was the King. I will give MR. MACARIO this, he nailed the text in its most common Elizabethan use, but his delivery and stage presence was at best non gratis.

Broadway doyan, ROGER RATHBURN  appears in the production as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the King of France and began as a most commanding and convincing character. But near of the end of the 1st act, it appeared that MR. RATHBURN stumbled while delivering one of his rather eloquent monologues and momentarily found it difficult to regain his momentum. Most unfortunate for him, for this reviewer yearned for the enveloping performance of which he greeted us with, but alas all was lost, and the rest of his evenings performance didn’t quite measure up. One would expect more from a veteran actor.

JULIAN EVENS as Dauphine was a delightful counterpart to RATHBURN’s King. Charismatic and charming he always remained in character. His leering focus and body language gave us a clear view of what Dauphine was feeling.  Rather convincing in character, EVENS takes the ornery and defiant Dauphine and makes him most convincing only to be enhanced by MR. EVENS thin build, good looks and soft but solid stage appearance. Collectively they lent a wonderful tone to what was close to an otherwise flawless characterization.

ADAM SEWELL & JOE PENCZAK are everything character actors should be. They brought flavor and depth to the numerous parts they played. Both actors were rich in their content and development. Healthy and unique characterizations combined with abundant and voluminous body language, their text and delivery were both refreshing and stand alone. They both restoratively stood out in every crowd scene.

And last but definitely not least, was the adorably beautiful (and comfortably bi-lingual) EMMA ELLE PATERSON who gave Princess Katherine a simplistically virginal quality. Particularly essential and paramount to the character of Princess Katherine was her lithesome grace. PATERSON’s  poise and radiance shone brightly through as she appeared to know instinctively how to live Katherine all too well, while using the stage lighting ever so effortlessly, to enhance and brighten her mannered Cosette like beauty and charm.

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