Henry V, currently receiving a slam-bang production at the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, is the Elizabethan version of an action movie. Slam-bang is, in fact, the very nature of the piece. I overheard Brad Robbert, managing director of the festival, advising some elderly ladies not to sit on one side of the stage, "because that's where a lot of the sword fighting is."
There is a woman in this battlefield drama, Katherine, princess of France (Natsumi Sugiyama). She gets a light comic scene with her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Paul Schierhorn). Yes, you read right. Schierhorn with beard and oh-so-lovely pink bonnet tries to help Katherine learn English. In another scene at the end of the play, the conquering Henry courts her, displaying the sly charm that we've seen in other less perfumed encounters.
But most of the play is about men at war. Specifically, it's about Henry as soldier, hero and inspired leader. The curious thing, however, is that -- like Pirates of the Caribbean part three and other sequels -- Henry V is built by implication on Henry IV, parts I and II. Henry, or Prince Hal, was a wastrel youth who hung around with a bunch of rascally good-for-nothings. In the end, he pulled himself together and fought his father's enemies. As king, he has said goodbye to the companions of his youth, particularly the rotund, jovial Falstaff.
Now, Henry wears the crown. He has a rather far-fetched claim to the crown of France as well. The French monarch offers him, instead, a sort of payoff, which arrives in a huge blue trunk. But when it's opened, the trunk is full of tennis balls. Henry vows to avenge this insult by invading France.
There are subplots along the way, but the attempt to conquer France drives the play and furnishes its suspense (except, of course, this is history and the outcome is not in doubt). One subplot has to do with three English nobles (Randy Maggiore, Andrew Wuestenfeld and Jennifer Lynn Mefford) who have taken French bribes and conspired to murder Henry. They've been discovered and Henry orders them executed.
Another subplot concerns some of the rascals of Henry's youth, who are now enlisted as soldiers (Clayton Faits, Jonathan Gonzalez and Barry Hubbard). They display a great deal more braggadocio than courage. Also, somewhere off stage poor, ailing Falstaff breathes his last.
But get to the battle scenes. "Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?" asks the Chorus (also played by Paul Schierhorn). "Let us, ciphers to this great accompt, on your imaginary forces work," he suggests as an answer.
Director Lorenzo Gonzalez employs some special effects to present the clash of armies -- but these are theatrical, rather than technical. Bamboo poles serve as English longbows, then as lances for a cavalry charge. Soldiers' shields are, in fact, thin drums so that the battle din is a rhythmic tumult.
Nonetheless, it's the quiet scene of the night before the battle that has most impressed itself on the world's imagination. Here, King Henry wanders through the English camp -- taking the pulse of his army. This is, as the chorus so famously puts it, "a little touch of Harry in the night."
The success of the play ultimately depends on Henry, and he is not given deep, fascinating conflicts like Shylock, say, or Macbeth. He has a lot going for him, but his Machiavellian side is subtle or perhaps balanced by a sincere and simple quality.
In any case, Nick Slie gives an excellent performance in this difficult role. He is vigorous but does not strain and therefore captures not only the walled city of Harfleur, but also our attention.
Shakespeare's plays have a lot of words -- and the verse, sublime though it is, is a manner of expression foreign to us. The temptation is to overemphasize. Or to overact. Slie -- and many others in the cast -- do not yield to this temptation.
The set by Emily Ross is also conceived with an effective simplicity: a dark blue playing area with a low blue platform on one end. Above the platform, two gray cloth backdrops are stretched like bat wings. Michelle Bohn's costume design has the warriors in vaguely modern dress, with occasional hints at their Renaissance world.
Although one can well understand that a cast of more than 30 would be ruinous, the doubling and tripling of parts is sometimes confusing. Still, Henry V, despite occasional awkwardness, is a compelling drama. You come away from it, after the dreadful excitement of war has calmed, thinking about what it is that makes an effective leader.
- Henry V (Nick Slie) prepares to lead the outnumbered British against the French at the Battle of Agincourt.