Henry V was perhaps one of Shakespeare’s first plays staged when the Globe Theater opened in 1599. When the modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe opened in 1997, Henry V was the first play performed. (The modern scientific consensus is that Julius Caesar was the first play at the Globe Theater and Henry V — with all its metatheatrical references to the “Wooden O” – celebrated this particular milestone shortly after that same year.)
So fitting that the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company reopened after the pandemic, the first play on its immersive push stage was Henry V with executive director Lesley Malin offering her welcoming remarks before breaking into a chorus with the opening lines resounding: “O, for a muse of fire…”
Throughout the production, she sits on the balcony or in the crowd until the next chorus speech and joins the large cast ensemble – Ian Charles, Jonas Connors-Grey, Michael Crowley, Terrance Fleming, Oz Heiligman, From Jeanette Horne, Bess Kaye, Morgan Pavey, Sam Richie, Teresa Spencer and Ryan Tumulty – to move the action from the theatrical stage to the royal courts of England or France, and from ships to battlefields. Connors-Grey, Fleming, Home and Tumulty all stand out in their different roles.
On the alternate stage with several wooden boxes functioning as chairs, thrones, steps and barricades designed by Dan O’Brien and the simple costume that nods to Kristina Lambdin’s Elizabethan attire, the famous The play’s opening lines appeal to viewers’ imaginations to fill in the interstices, to fill the battlefields with armored horses.
The rarity and intensity of the production underline the ambiguity of the central question of the play: is Henry V a benevolent or malevolent sovereign? But the thesis of the play (left deliberately answered) might be clearer in a more streamlined production with more cuts and less comedy.
Henry V is a game of contradictions, both medieval and timeless (rulers invading other nations for the most absurd reasons, charismatic politicians deceiving their followers, chauvinism, etc.). Director Alec Wild shines a light on the tensions between patriotism and unbridled nationalism while creating a complex portrait of the titular king. Played with both boyish charm and calculated coldness by Samuel Adams, Henry V is a modern politician fighting a medieval war.
Sometimes this Henry, who wears a prominent cross, seems genuinely pious in restful moments of prayer and at other times seems to play the role of false piety (as well as the diabolical Richard III). Adams may stir up patriotic zeal among English soldiers with his grand “once more into the breach…” speeches and St. Crispin’s Day speeches, but his loyal soldiers express dismay and disgust in his cruel threats against citizens. helpless from Harfleur. Even his stoic Uncle Exeter (played with a lofty presence by Dawn Thomas Reidy) seems quietly exasperated by Henry at times. He can walk among his ordinary soldiers in disguise and debate the king’s guilt in civil bloodshed, and even woo Princess Katherine of France (a feisty and giddy Morgan Pavey) after the destruction of his native land and the death of countless noble parents.
Henry’s most powerful weapon is his ability to tell others what they need to hear in the moment. Adams is most compelling in scenes where the King appears unguarded or vulnerable, exposing his humanity.
Henry often speaks of mercy—and at the start of the play he even offers a way out for three traitorous nobles whom they fail to understand or reach—but he allows the executions of his old petty criminals. He orders the execution of all French prisoners of war and, after the murder of the helpless young pages guarding the English baggage, he declares that now he is finally mad and without mercy. We hadn’t seen much pity before.
We are given several dubious reasons why King Henry invaded France. (It’s hard not to think about Putin’s lies and propaganda to invade Ukraine right now.) The Archbishop of Canterbury (Jonas Connors-Grey) pushes aside the Salic Law (which disinherits female lineage claims to the throne of France) as technically applying only to Germany so that Henry has a claim on France to a distant maternal ancestor. In a flashback (added from Henry IV, part 2), the dying Henry IV advises his son to unite his men and occupy them against a foreign enemy to avoid internal troubles. Then there are the tennis balls. The Dauphin of France (an exceptional Terrance Fleming) mocks the young prince by sending him a treasure trove of tennis balls. Henri V declares war and more than 10,000 French people (including the Dauphin) are declared dead after the Battle of Agincourt.
Wild’s script helpfully adds a brief flashback montage at the start of the play with scenes from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 to show the evolution of the prodigal Prince Hal to his ascension as King Henry V and his banishment from Falstaff. It also removes some scenes and characters.
There could also be a bit more reduction to heighten Wild’s portrayal of Henry as the ultimate ‘king player’. Comedic scenes with the swaggering gun (Sam Richie), Bardolph (Jonas Connors-Grey), and Nym (Ian Charles) rely on archaic puns that slow the pace of the main plot, and the many lessons of ancient history of Fluellen (Michael Crowley) fall flat.
Nevertheless, some of the archaic elements work well. When Fluellen’s ancient Welsh custom of carrying a leek on St David’s Day is mocked and he forces the cowardly gunman to eat the leek, the scene of comic abuse and international insults/aggression parodies the horrors of the war we have witnessed between England and France. (Even two rows back, I could smell the leek and imagine Richie avoiding onions for a while after the play ended.) Or, when Princess Katherine tries to learn the English names of body parts, several bawdy jokes pass quite clearly with the help of his more worldly assistant Alice (a passionate Teresa Spencer), even if the audience doesn’t know a word of French.
As the chorus returns to the stage for the epilogue, standing before newlyweds Henry and Katherine, and the reconciled French and English monarch (the former having lost so much for so little), we are above the political antics of Henry. The Chorus specifies that Henry V died young and that his heir Henry VI would lose his French possessions. As we all know from Shakespeare Henry VI plays, the threat of continued bloodshed and future wars, even more treacherous English nobles, and the threat of Shakespeare’s most evil of English monarchs, Richard III, loom on the horizon.
Shakespeare’s history plays can plod along and this production is no exception. There are some fascinating moments in the staged battles (choreographed by Robb Hunter) and the production premise is provocative, but a more streamlined version might make the horrors of war better understood.
Duration: 2h20 with a 15 minute intermission.
Henry V plays through May 15, 2022 at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company – 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased in line, by calling 410-244-8570, or by visiting the box office in person. Ticket prices range from $24 to $63, with discounts available for active duty military, seniors, and anyone 25 or younger.
COVID safety: Proof of vaccination will be required to enter the theatre. For those unable to get vaccinated due to age, medical restrictions or religious beliefs, proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test within the last 72 hours of the performance will be required. Masks must be worn at all times in the theater. Full health and safety FAQs are here.
By William Shakespeare
CAST LIST (in alphabetical order)
Samuel Adams – King Henry V
Ian Charles – Nym / Duke of Bedford / Williams / others
Michael Crowley – Fluellen/Henry IV/Constable/Others
Terrance Fleming – Dauphin/Earl of Westmorland
Jonas Gray – Archbishop of Canterbury/Bardolph/King of France/others
Ryan Tumulty – Montjoy/Bates/Grey/Others
Oz Heiligman – Boy/Others
DeJeanette Horne – Gower/Governor of Harfleur/Rambures/others
Bess Kaye – Gloucester/Orleans
Lesley Malin – Chorus
Morgan Pavey – Katherine / Bishop of Ely / others
Dawn Thomas Reidy – Duke of Exeter
Sam Richie – Pistol/Others
Teresa Spencer – Nell Quickly/Alice/Others
Alec Wild – Director
Séamus Miller – Assistant director
Sarah Curnoles – Production Manager
Jesús López Vargas – production manager
Dan O’Brien – Scenic Designer/Technical Director
Minjoo Kim – Lighting Designer
Kristina Lambdin – Costume Coordinator
Jess Rassp – Accessories Designer
Caleb Stine – Composer
Lisa Beley – Text and voice coach
Robb Hunter – Fight Choreographer
Grace Srinivasan – Music Director
Abigail Funk – rehearsal manager
Eva Hill – Assistant Stage Manager
Dassi Choen – Production Assistant
Hannah Brill – Wardrobe Supervisor
Heather Jackson, Matthew Smith – Costume Assistants
Jennifer Bae – Couture
Kristopher Ingle – Lightboard Operator
Bess Kaye – Battle Captain
Ben Kenny – Behind the Scenes Intern
Mandy Benedix – Covid Security Officer
Dr Bob Connors – CSC Covid Health Advisor
Pam Forton – Senior House Manager