by Robert Stuber
Henry V, directed by James Edmondson for the Great River Shakespeare Festival
For those who saw the 2011 production of Henry IV, it might help to know that Season 8’s Prince Hal is now King Henry V. The character of Hal (played by Chris Sheard in 2011) is not only played by a different actor in 2013 (Doug Sholz-Carlson), the character Henry has made a major transformation. The follower of petty thieves, revelers, and drunkards has become this summer’s devout and surprisingly capable leader of all of England. This is really a different king and a different play. One does not need to have seen or read Henry IV to fully enjoy Henry V.
Today we might categorize Henry V as “historical fiction.” It is a form that allows Shakespeare to employ a wide array of his dramatic skills as he follows the young king into war with France: from physical comedy to bloody battle scenes; from bombastic proclamations by charlatans to some of the best known speeches in the English language. And as an extra treat, the entire final act employs Shakespeare’s prowess in romantic comedy.
So much works well in this production that it is difficult to identify specific individual actors or theatrical elements as being successful or not. For example, I suspect that Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s elegant lighting design is largely responsible for much of the emotional power of the production. But because the lighting works seamlessly with the rest of the production, I find it difficult to separate lighting from the rest of the show. Corey Allen’s role as the chorus is a further example. Offering narration, explanation, and invitation at several points during the play, Allen is a trustworthy guide as well as a larger-than-life spectacle, possessing a sort of magical radiance. The effect is such that when Allen invites the audience to “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them/ Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth,” we are more than willing to see and feel those horses. Does this prologue work because of Allen’s mastery of Shakespeare’s iambs or because of the richness of his voice or because of his physical presence? Does it work because of the back lighting filtered through elements in the sparse set or because of the tight front lighting? Does it work because of the staging that at times makes Allen seem to walk through the scene to deliver his lines? I think the answer to all these questions is an emphatic “yes.”
We have a dual treat with this production of Henry V. First of all, we can revel in the rich theatrical experience created by very talented artisans working toward a unified artistic vision. Secondly, because of this unified vision, we can revel in Shakespeare. While it would not be fair to claim that this play is produced as Shakespeare intended, I will suggest that Shakespeare’s verse, dramatic humor, and storytelling are allowed a starring role. When I find my mind wandering back to the production — which happens frequently — I do not find myself thinking about the performances and artistic choices; I find myself thinking of Shakespeare’s choices: Does he intend for us to see the Archbishop’s self-serving support for Henry’s plans as simply funny or as a criticism of the church? Did Henry’s advisors really think it a good idea to invade France or is Shakespeare commenting on the nature of power? Is Henry’s newfound religious fervor genuine or political? What about his professed love of Katharine?
The play requires Henry to dispel any doubts about his ability to lead. Sholz-Carlson is certainly up to the task of portraying this king and of carrying the play’s sizable political and emotional weight. To keep the play from succumbing to this weight, however, Shakespeare sprinkles comic scenes and characters throughout the play: the tavern-dwellers Pistol and Nym turned unscrupulous soldiers (Chris Mixon and Peter Eli Johnson) and the rough spoken Welsh officer Fluellen (Christopher Gerson) come to mind. While conversations between other French characters are in English, Shakespeare writes Katherine’s scenes in French. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the French, Stephanie Lambourn and Tarah Flanagan’s exchanges stand among the many enjoyable moments of the rich tapestry of western drama that makes up Henry V.
For tickets now through August 4, go to grsf.org, 79 E. Third St., downtown Winona, or call 507-474-7900.