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A CurtainUp Review
Henry V

by Les Gutman

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger...

---King Henry in Act III, Scene 1

Liev Schreiber and His Troops
Liev Schreiber and His Troops (Photo: Michal Daniel)
Reams of scholarly paper have been devoted to the ambiguities that notoriously plague Henry V. Who is this king, and why is he so difficult to understand?

Conventionally, one imagines the throne of England as a lion's den, grand and regal. Yet Henry V doesn't fit that image: he's like the agile, cunning tiger he invokes to stir his troops. He may be seized of the divine rights of kings, but he operates, instead, as a political animal. And, as we now know, parsing the motivations of a politician can be tricky.

Connecting this play to contemporary goings-on is irresistible, and nothing new. It can be engineered into war-mongering propaganda, or a pacifist screed. (Famously, two British actor-directors cut their teeth making film versions which are polar opposites: Olivier's 1944 jingoistic version and Branaugh's 1989 anti-war one.) Director Mark Wing-Davey doesn't tread in either of these tracks, and there's no blatant effort to draw attention to the invasion of Iraq or its current fallout. Yet there is something about this Henry that resonates in our present mood, and it's a notion that would -- and did -- confound earlier audiences: we don't trust politicians, and we are far more aware of how they manipulate us.

Henry makes back-room deals that legitimize his actions, uses focus groups to massage public opinion, craftily builds a popular image with "photo-ops," and makes sure he's out of the line of fire when it comes time to attribute faults. Those who make fun of him are spurned, and dissenters are dealt with harshly.

In Liev Schreiber, director Mark Wing-Davey has a Henry who is certainly a tiger. His intelligence is demonstrable, and he has the sort of appeal that makes Harold Bloom's comparisons to JFK (detailed in an earlier CurtainUp review of Henry V, linked below as are a trio of others) apt. It doesn't hurt that in Schreiber we also have one of the few actors with star power who actually has the chops to deliver the lines with authority.

But Schreiber's performance is not the sort that is likely to move us greatly, nor should it be in this construct. We don't have an appetite for the heroic. In fact, we are not especially in a mood to get exercised about much of anything, and it seems Wing-Davey (in contrast perhaps to the currently running London Henry V linked below) senses this.

In eschewing the more patterned approaches, however, Wing-Davey lacks focus. He fashions a staging that seems to assume his audience suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, serving up a hodgepodge of clever and/or amusing images calculated to keep us entertained. But he shifts gears without regard to what, if any, connection his concepts (some would call them gimmicks) have to a coherent theme or, for that matter, each other. Admittedly, some are impressive effects, and some of his performers execute them brilliantly; but only a minority seem to have a point.

Shakespeare's Chorus is represented here by Steven Rattazzi, who serves as a sort of frazzled Rod Serling-like host who inexplicably wears a trench coat. (Perhaps he is supposed to be an "entrenched" reporter; if so, the nuance is a bit obscure.) As we enter the Delacorte, we notice that Mark Wendland's set (sparse and structural in the extreme) includes several rows of gilded banquet chairs (the kind one might rent for a tent wedding in the suburbs), set up as if to extend the audience onto the stage. What they are intended to signify is unclear, but they remain throughout the show, sometimes rearranged to supply seating, and at other times piled up when they just seem to be in the way. They are one of several features of the show that are included for elusive reasons, and then become impediments.

Another such encumbrance is Bronson Pinchot's Pistol, set up as an outer borough Italian wise guy from the 50's (pompadour and all) in his first scene with an equally clichéd Mistress Quickly (Mercedes Herrero). Both perform the shtick exceedingly well, but there's no particularly reason for it, and it runs out of steam long before it's done.

The British courtiers appear in 20th Century business attire, which works well in the Salic Law scene (it's as well done as any I've seen), but then the French Court appears in a peculiar mishmash of white garb, some of which might make sense for a summer in North Africa, but not on the French Riviera (where they seem to be lounging) in late October (when, according to Shakespeare and history, the conflict takes place). Elsewhere in the show, actors will appear in various period costumes, for reasons not at all clear.

The park setting lends itself well to battle scenes, and they are delivered with skill. But other elements are just ingenious bits of stagecraft that this director seems to lack the discipline to either tether to a broader conceit, or scuttle. Mr. Wendland (or someone) had a great idea for suggesting a swimming pool onstage, so we see it, although I'm sure sure why. When we first see Princess Katherine (Nicole Leach -- who is spectacular), she's in a shower from which she will exit nude. Why? And then there is the matter of Queen Isabel, portrayed to great comic effect by Peter Gerety. Yes, in drag. Again I ask: why? There are individual scenes in this production that are terrific. Those between Ms. Leach and her lady-in-waiting (also Ms. Herrero) are wonderful, as is her scene in Act V with Mr. Schreiber. Yet the disjointed (or perhaps unjointed) spectacle Mr. Wing-Davey has concocted takes the wind out of Henry's sails, so his major and memorable speeches are rendered superficial, notwithstanding the actor's exemplary performance skills.

Many great opportunities, squandered. Luckily, it was a great night to be out of doors.

Henry V (London RNT)
Henry V (London RSC)
Henry V (NY)
Henry V (Berkshires)

Henry V
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
with Gbenga Akinnagbe, David Costabile, Adam Dannheisser, Gregory Derelian, Jon Dolton, Colman Domingo, Mark Gerald Douglas, David Flaherty, Rob Gallavan, Peter Gerety, Mercedes Herrero, Nicole Leach, Ryan McCarthy, Dan Moran, Daniel Oreskes, Orlando Patoboy, Bronson Pinchot, Steven Rattazzi, Martin Rayner, Tom Alan Robbins, Liev Schreiber, Ryan Shively, Mike Strickland and Arie Thompson
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Original Music and Sound Score: John Gromada
Choreography: David Neumann Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of The Public Theater
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park (enter park @81st Street/CPW or 79th/5 Av.)
Telephone (212) 539-8750 Public Theater website:
Opening July 15, 2003, closes August 12, 2003 Tues - Sun @8 (except no performance 7/19 and added performance 7/14); Free, limit of 2 per person (ticket pickup at the Delacorte or The Public beginning at 1 P.M. and elsewhere in all 5 boroughs on specified days -- see The Public Theater website)
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/12/03 performance

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