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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
King Henry V
Its inherent drama notwithstanding -- the first part examining the cause and preparation of the war, the middle part focusing on the actual battles and the siege of Harfleur and Agincourt, and the finale bringing the spoils of battle and peace by way of Henry's courtship of and marriage to the Princess of France -- Henry V is difficult to stage. The battle of Agincourt lends itself to cinematic spectacle and indeed, the play has been famously filmed twice -- the 1948 version that won Laurence Olivier a special Academy award and the 1989 film with which Kenneth Branagh. On the other hand it is the conflicting interpretations of the motivations for this war, and the challenge of staging it that has seeded some highly inventive productions over the years; one example being the modern dress version with a real tennis game, a rock band for the wedding of Pistol and Mistress Quickly and "La Vien Rose" sung by the French princess.
Shakespeare & Company's production, which opened last Saturday at their main stage, the beautiful Founders Theatre, features just ten actors playing close to four dozen parts. This may not seem like much of a spectacle, but as it turns out it is quite spectacular how Jonathan Epstein (one of the company's leading actors here making his directing debut) and his versatile cast have invested the production with new ideas. The dizzying array of role switches includes shifts from the English to the French side. This adds to the sense of this being as much an anti-war play as a paean to Englishness ("ye, good yeomen, whose limbs were made in England"). Whether their accents are English or French, Welch or Scotch, these characters, like all people, are all made of the same human cloth and should be friends rather than enemies.
The clown nose business is quite effective in conveying the sense of giving a moral boost to those caught up in a war that increasingly looks like a fool's errand. It works best in a scene where the king takes these masks off his officers' noses before sending them into battle. However, the noses and the comic episodes can also be irritating and tend to upstage the pivotal struggle.
To have Allyn Burrows, who played Prince Hal in the company's 1997 outdoor production Henry IV, now play Henry the king underscores the pleasure of following a company which allows an actor to develop a character from one play to another. However, as this, like all the Bard's history plays is free-standing, you can appreciate Burrows' king without having seen his prince. He has the sculptured good looks of a hero-king, and shows the complexities of a monarch capable of nation-building, hard-nosed (no puns about those clown noses intended!) actions but whose kingly persona leaves room for compassion. There are times when his voice seemsweak and almost hoarse with straining to fill the large, unmiked space, but he's magnificent in his more low-key scenes, and especially so in the second act.
Burrows' is well supported by such Shakespeare regulars as Jonathan Croy and Jason Asprey (here, with a very authentic Welch accent). Johnny Lee Davenport, of the powerfully resonating voice and always superb Shakespearean line delivery, is memorable both as Exeter and the comic Constable. Henry David Clarke, equally impressive as Cambridge and the Dauphin, strikes me as a supporting player ripe for a leading role. Tony Simotes, besides his usual duties as fight director (or as here identified: fight/movement choreographer) makes a welcome appearance on stage as Nym and Orleans. On the distaff side, Susanna Apgar's French princess and Queen-of-England-to-be, is a delightful student of French (Ariel Bock playing her teacher). She and Burrows make a handsome couple.
Typical of other Shakespeare & Co. productions, this one spills throughout the theater. Sculptor Michael Melle has fashioned stunning horses and religious figures. Kiki Smith has created eye-popping costumes for the actors to change in and out of with dazzling fluidity. Karen Perlow's lighting casts everything in the right mood, the campfire scene right after the intermission being especially evocative. Also impressive are Jason Fitzgerald's sound design and Daniel Levy's original music. Clearly, even if all those clown noses and the excess of broad comic episodes are not quite your coup-de-Shakespeare, this Henry has sufficient assets to warrant a visit to the Founders Theatre.
Henry V (Royal Shakespeare 2001)
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