Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is an enormous undertaking for the director, the actors, the artistic staff and the audience.
Shakespeare’s histories can be difficult; they have a lot of history and characters to trudge through and “Henry V” is no exception. The first 15 minutes of the play require deep concentration as the audience must familiarize themselves with the huge cast of characters, the history and Shakespeare’s language. Before the play is finished, 40 characters will have passed through this story.
Fortunately, many of the same performers from “Henry IV Part 1” and “Henry IV Part 2” have returned to play the same characters. Brian Vaughn has also returned as the director after directing the previous plays, bringing a thread of continuity for those who saw the first two plays in this three-part history. For those who did not see the last two plays, www.bard.org has a comprehensive study guide to help bring this play’s story into focus. A little preparation goes a long way toward finding enjoyment and depth in this play.
This is not a relaxing play. In the final installment of Shakespeare’s trilogy of the story of Prince Hal, who becomes King Henry V, Hal, now Henry has a lot to prove as he overcomes his reputation as an idle and indulged prince to a powerful king of action. He immediately sets out to show his power and his right to rule as he declares his intentions and right to rule not only England but also his rights as heir to the regency of France.
This declaration prompts the dauphin of France (Eddie Lopez) to send a mocking and disrespectful gift of tennis balls to King Henry (Sam Ashdown). Henry V returns with a scathing message that the dauphin shall soon see his tennis balls returned as “gunstones.” Henry sets off to win his right as heir of France while simultaneously discovering a plot to assassinate him. The battle to prove his strength as a man worthy of rule has begun.
The askew buttresses and blood red candles dripping onto the enormous melted blood red seal of Henry V on the stage is dramatic, intriguing and disconcerting at first. But like the play itself, the scenic design by Scott Davis reveals its depth of thought and drama as the play progresses.
Sam Ashdown returning as Henry V is a relief. Watching his transformation from his role as Prince Hal to the ambitious, powerful and sober king is satisfying. His portrayal of the king is powerful while retaining echoes of Prince Hal. Ashdown’s Henry V has become a powerful man with the power of England’s crown behind a mischievous smile and clever mind.
In addition, Larry Bull continues as the Chorus in “Henry V” and as a storyteller/narrator he brings clarity to the storyline with his command of Shakespeare’s lines expertly delivered. In a large cast there are many stand out characters that draw the audience into this play’s multiple interweaving story lines. Bree Murphy’s Mistress Quickly (an old friend from Prince Hal’s days of taverns and riotous living) is charismatic, motherly and worldly while sending Prince Hal’s old friends Bardolph, Nym and Pistol off to fight in Henry’s war. Despite her brief time on the stage Leslie Lank’s Katherine is playful, innocent and charming.
While there were moments that moved slowly as I watched Henry discover himself in lengthy monologues, there were also moments that director Vaughn and his artistic staff brought rousing, blood pumping energy to the stage. The battle scenes were well choreographed by fight director David Wolley and the sound designer Joe Payne deserves recognition for the cacophony of war that he recreated in the Engelstad.
In the end, after deaths and smoke and blood there is peace. We see a gentler, relieved king as he wins over a hesitant Katherine in love. “Henry V” was an action-packed history that brought drama and death and love to the new Engelstad theatre. It was well directed and well performed and deserves an active, engaged audience as it plays through Sept. 10.
On a side note, there is a hanging and other violence in this play. Parental discretion is advised for younger audience members.