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Henry V

Henry V: A Loss Leader

Shakespeare Theater Company, Sydney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.,
Wednesday, March 3, 2010, Seats D–120&121 (side of stage)
Directed by David Muse

This production ran in tandem with Richard II under the banner “The Leadership Repertory.” Michael Hayden played both kings, and after this performance we participated in a post-play discussion with him and other cast members. He talked at length about some of the traits of leadership he found in the part, particularly Henry’s divide between his personal and public persona. A most insightful comment was his take on the famous “Once more unto the breach” speech. Good leaders on the battlefield don’t do rah-rah rants, Hayden pointed out; instead, they give steady, confident direction.

Such insights—gleaned from the play program and post-play talk—were the true treasures of this production. Yet, on the stage itself, the production dragged at times. Some fault lay in where we were sitting. Sidney Harmon, for only the second time in its history, was set up in a thrust configuration, and while the actors enjoyed being close to the audience, we spectators on the side were largely ignored by the players while our view was blocked by the blocking. At one point, we did have the clearest advantage in the house, when Henry addressed the Governor of Harfleur, who was standing at the front of the auditorium’s balcony. However, that bit of trick staging became more distracting than effective because I spent the entire length of Henry’s speech—and a long length it is—watching the audience in the stalls becoming aware of the governor’s presence and shuffling in their seats trying to see the governor as he replied.

Director David Muse also engaged in some extracurricular activity with Shakespeare’s script to varying degrees of success. On the up side, three different people played Chorus, each with markedly different personalities: an earth mother, an old-style thespian, and an impatient accountant. This was a nod to Chorus’s tendency to jump around in his soliloquies and often contradict himself. On the down side, this production inserted Falstaff into the scene of Nym and Pistol’s fight. After a line or two, Fat Jack suddenly took ill and was helped off stage, later to be seen in his deathbed. Muse used this device to provide context for Henry’s progressive break from his past, a concession to those in the audience who were unfamiliar with the Henry IV plays. Fair enough, but if you are going to do that, go ahead and incorporate the classic, domineering Jack into the action, not a player who seems little more than an extra in a crowd scene.

That, though, was a general problem with this production. Except for Henry, Fluellen, and the French, the other characters were virtually indistinguishable and mostly interchangeable (even though this staging had little doubling of actors).

The French were a wonderful relief to the otherwise plodding production. Tom Story was a petulant Dauphin, Dan Kremer a haughty Constable, and David Joseph Regelmann a cynical Orleans, and among them they turned the battle’s eve scene into richly sophisticated comedy. Rachael Holmes as Princess Kathrine and Robynn Rodriguez as Alice did a spirited language lesson scene (and Rodriguez was earth mother Chorus, too). Stephen Paul Johnson got more laughs than the norm with his Fluellen’s obsession with the rules of war.

Hayden, meanwhile, held the spotlight well: watching him you realize how demanding a part Henry is (just below that of Hamlet and Richard III). In the after-talk discussion he described how he had many times seen Branagh’s movie Henry and considered it definitive, but once he got into production he began finding his own particular Henry; nevertheless, much of Branagh’s performance seeped into Hayden’s portrayal. Still, his was a Henry who was contemplative at Westminster, coy at Southampton, stout at Harfleur, charming in Paris, and uncomfortably cruel in the heat of battle. His Henry was a true leader of men, one who lost a bit of himself to become so.

Eric Minton
March 5, 2010

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