Henry V: Theater Review

Erika Boxler
Stripped-down Shakespeare as blunt and plainspoken as King Harry himself.  

Stripped-down Shakespeare is staged in Venice.

Forget the spectacle of the movie versions of Henry V by Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh (each making their film directing debuts). This is a Shakespeare of the imagination, consistent with a text originally conceived for a less than lavish playhouse, the Bard of resourceful invention and indefatigable conceit. Eleven actors, seven in multiple roles, commence with a paperback and loose sides at a reading table that is quickly cast aside as the Chorus (Alex Fernandez) exuberantly conjures up in our fancy the scale of great nations inexorably impelled to conflict upon a sanguinary battlefield. Poverty of means becomes the occasion for a lively collaboration between the players and the audience, the very core of what theater is. It reverses the experience of movie-going by projecting its images onto our screens.

A dissolute Prince Hal (Joe McGovern) ascends to the throne upon the death of his father, Henry Bolinbroke (also Fernandez), and immediately renounces the old rogue Falstaff (Dennis Madden) for his new destiny as exemplary military leader. As Henry IV had essentially usurped the throne -- so as best as this befuddled ear can divine from the genealogical lineage mercifully expostulated only in part by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Prichard) -- Henry’s claim upon the French throne (based upon the conquest by his great-grandfather Edward III) sounds possibly more dubious than his father’s relentless realpolitik of civil war.

Nevertheless, this martial history embraces heartily English valor and divine endorsement, which means that despite the weary wisdom of the consequences of fear, mortality and carnage, the point of view remains a nuanced hagiography of Henry. If it hasn’t the endless complexity of the greatest Shakespeare, its insights and eloquence are powerful, and this cocksure cut-and-paste job highlights those essences starkly and with appropriate elan. This may be the crispest St. Crispian’s Day at Agincourt one is ever likely to see, and yet while nearly all artifice is sacrificed, the meanings are clear, spoken in a resolutely Colonial diction that works as well as any British accent, and the action never obscure.

It requires that every actor, no matter the lightning changes of role (some of them blinding), be ever on their game, and the ensemble carries off the pyrotechnics with infectious relish. It’s far from the best Henry V imaginable. Nevertheless, it’s very good indeed, with unflagging freshness of attack, and so unpretentiously accessible that it would make a splendid introduction for anyone timorous about connecting with Shakespeare, inspiring us to engage in the battle as much as Henry exhorts his troops.

Little suspecting I would be attending this performance, I spent the earlier portion of the week listening to four 1950s Caedmon LPs of Henry VI Part Two. Having in mind the future depredations of the French bride and bounty of war Katherine (Carole Weyers) as Queen and domineering bloodthirsty mother cast an unintended pall over the charms of their courtship scene and the eugenic argument urged by Henry of dubious portent. It just shows how the smallest adjustment in optic can reveal unaccustomed ironies practically anywhere in his works. 

Venue: Pacific Resident Theatre, Venice (extended through July 20)

Cast: Joe McGovern, Alex Fernandez, Yancy Holmes, Dennis Madden, Tracie Lockwood, Carole Weyers, Terrance Elton, Michael Prichard, Oscar Best, Norman Scott, Joan Chodorow

Director: Guillermo Cienfuegos

Playwright: William Shakespeare, adapted by Guillermo Cienfuegos and Joe McGovern

Set and lighting designer: Norman Scott

Fight choreography: Jonathan Rider

Producer: Elspeth A. Weingarten

Executive Producer: Marilyn Fox