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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Henry V

King Henry V is resolved, by God's help. . .to bend (France) to (his) awe, or break it all to pieces".

David Conrad as King Henry V and Kate Baldwin as Princess Katharine of France in Henry V.
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein.)
The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey has opened its 45th season with an exciting and exemplary production of a historical play that, it seems, is not destined to lose its topicality. It is virtually impossible to attend Shakespeare's Henry V today without becoming acutely aware of the political savvy that drives the plot and the recklessly nationalistic monarch at its center. And who is so blind as not to see this bit of English history in the light of our own country's missions

There is nothing exceptional in the sight of a darkened stage within a theater lit only by the obligatory ghost light and assorted props. However, the trap doors, the ladders, the unpainted flats, chests and props are soon put to effective use by a superb company under the direction of Bonnie J. Monte.

Jack Wetherall, who portrays the chorus with élan, makes quite an entrance out of a center stage trap door. He is only too eager to capture our attention with his prologue for this tale of war and peace, love and hate, loyalty and deception and all those issues that the Bard processes in one of the most thrilling epics in the canon. Wetherall's delightfully theatrical mannerisms encourage us to let our imagination take hold as the performers soon begin to emerge from every nook and cranny and every dark corner of the stage.

It is easy to understand why Laurence Olivier's film adaptation was admired for its patriotic zeal during the height of World War II, and why the play was equally extolled when Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 film version played Henry as an impetuous imperialist. The inherent ironies and the true meanings (if any exist) behind the double standard speechifying tend to peak and ebb depending less on interpretations than with the audience in attendance.

Find topical relevance as you may, but you might want to just sit back and enjoy Monte's basically unthreatening (to either the left or right wing) vision. It finds a way to indicate the pros and cons of political and social implications as well as embrace the mainly adventurous — and, in one memorable scene, its amorous intentions.

Despite its three and one-half hour length, you're like to remain attentive from the get-go to the words spoken by the American actor David Conrad's Henry. It takes an actor of Conrad's resources, specifically his ability to speak the language with conviction, that is the heart of this production. Conrad is in his third season at this theater and can take credit for making much of Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (see CurtainUp review) and playing the weak and ineffectual Richard II. Those latter qualities are nowhere to be seen in his virile combative Henry who is not only a lovable liar and fraud, but also a duplicitous schemer, savior and lover.

It is almost impossible to watch this play and not see our own country and its president reflected in the course of the action of a reckless young king, who, trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, is eager to assure his court of his ability to lead. Even though the play hints that he may not even be the legitimate heir, some parallels to Bush and his administrative team are inevitable. The opening scene, in which the king, keenly aware of the pressing and troublesome religious, social and economic issues at hand, shrewdly uses war against France as a diversionary tactic, is especially prescient.

Monte's approach is neither heavy-handed nor does it appear to take a stand on whether Henry was as divinely inspired as Saint Joan or merely buoyed by his own vainglorious self-determination. If Shakespeare purposely doesn't make it crystal clear, why should Monte or for that matter Conrad, who gives a performance that resounds with cleverly balanced contradictions, rhetorical bluster and self-effacing heroism.

The fact that we rarely lose sight of the play as a play within a play upon a stage is occasionally addressed by designer Michael Schweikardt when a huge territorial tapestry unrolls to backdrop the French court. Turquoise is the dominant color accented in the otherwise drab palette of cleverly conceived catch-as-catch-can costumes by Dane Laffrey. It is astonishing how visually arresting the action scenes become even though there is little beyond Steven Rosen's extraordinary lighting to indicate a bloody battle or the reality of war. We get the message.

The accents, particularly those of the French and the Scottish, are not only commendable but are exercised with relish. There are many fine performances on both sides of the breech. As to be expected, the French impress with their impudence and condescending air, with much of it relegated to John Patrick Doherty, as the Dauphin, and Ian Stuart, as Charles VI, King of France. The Scots are tenacious and blustery, namely Ames Adamson, Sean Tarrant, Salvatore Cacciato, and Scott McIntosh, as the Captains Fluellen, Gower, Jamy and MacMorris.

Brent Langdon and Darren Matthias, as constantly bickering and thieving camp followers Pistol and Nym, admirably keep their comically-defined squabbling within the bounds of realism, as does Scott Whitehurst as their cohort Bardolph. Seamus Mulcahy projects a wry sense of humor as the boy in their dubious employ. It wasn't easy grabbing the spotlight from these scene-stealers, but Chantall Jean-Pierre proved a force to contend with as she not only played the lusty Hostess Quickly, Pistol's wife, but returned as Alice, the in-English-educated lady-in-waiting to Princess Katherine. The risquè and humorous French lesson between the coy Princess Katherine (Kate Baldwin) and Alice is invigorated by the charm of these two actors.

If the comical moments are far and few, it is for the incongruous humors of this by-war-possessed Henry to prevail. Standout among these is the famous and much admired wooing scene. In this climactic and totally disarming scene, Conrad employs every posture and pose at his disposal to win the love of the cautious Katharine. The absolutely beautiful and beguiling Baldwin, who is noted primarily for her musical theater credits, including The Full Monty, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Wonderful Town is playing her first Shakespeare role. Her performance, is small but a dazzler. As a result the play ends not with the brutal awareness that everything the English have gained is destined to be lost, but that everything that Henry has won for the moment is well worth it.

For links to our other reviews of this and other Shakespeare plays, see our Shakespeare Page.
Henry V
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte
Cast: Jack Wetherall, Ian Stuart, Ames Adamson, David Conrad, Josh Carpenter, Paphael Nash Thompson, Roichard Bourg, Christopher Thornton, Scott Whitehurst, Darren Matthias, Brent Langdon, Chantal Jean-Pierre, Seamus Mulcahy, Garth McCardle, Sean Tarrant, Anthony DeLuca, John Patrick Doherty, Salvatore Cacciato, Scott McIntosh, Kate Baldwin, Philip Mutz. Set Designer: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Designer: Dane Laffrey
Lighting Designer: Steven Rosen
Sound Designer: Karin Graybash
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Ave, Madison, NJ F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater on the campus of Drew University
Tickets $28 - $52
Performances through Sunday May 27.
Tuesdays at 7:30 PM; Wednesdays — Saturdays at 8 PM; Sundays at 7 PMSaturday and Sundays at 2 PM
Call 973/ 408 - 5600 or visit
Previews May 1, 2, 3. Opening night May 5
Running Time: 3 hours 30 minutes including one intermission
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance May 5.
Henry V/Shakespeare ( New Jersey)
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