New York City Theater
Brooklyn Academy of Music
“O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention,” intones the Chorus at the start of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Henry V” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Familiar, yes, but this time the Chorus is wearing casual contemporary clothes, while the rest of the cast is properly attired in costumes befitting the 15th century. Balancing past and present, king and commoner, under the umbrella title of “King and Country” (“Richard II,” “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” “Henry V”), the concluding play in the tetralogy is being given a headlong production. The audience is immersed not merely in a chronicle of some long-ago war but one where real lives are at stake.
Its main virtue is showing Henry’s progression from an insecure monarch to a confident soldier and wooer of the French princess (perhaps the evening’s most effective, certainly its most charming, scene). Alex Hassell’s Henry may be a king, but he’s also a human being and both Hassell and director Gregory Doran go for the mundane not the spectacular.
Even the war cry that begins the patriotic “Once more unto the breach” or the plangent “We few, we happy few” are delivered with an understatement that contrasts with the explosive battle scenes. Henry may be brave and inspiring, but he’s not without feeling. The wooing scene itself becomes a cat-and-mouse game between two youngsters attracted to each other. They may be pawns in an alliance between their two countries, but they’re also amusingly, playfully, hot-to-trot.
The lack of breast-beating heroics also points up Shakespeare’s structure, alternating and connecting affairs of state with comic byplay among commoners Bardolph, Pistol and Nym. Both as characters and representatives of a unified Great Britain are the Welsh Fleullen, the English Gower, the Irish Macmorris and the Scottish Jamy whose incomprehensible dialect gets big laughs.
The battle scenes are proficient, more symbolic than actual. It’s the scene on the night before the battle, where a disguised Henry circulates among his troops and gets into a verbal fight with one of his men, that is a moving comment on the contrast between the burdens of leadership and the duties of followers.
Besides Hassell’s incisive, affecting Henry, other standouts are Oliver Ford Davies as a friendly Chorus. Sarah Parks as an empathetic Mistress Quickly, Jennifer Kirby as the flirtatious Katherine, Leigh Quinn as Alice, Katherine’s pragmatic lady-in-waiting and Robert Gilbert as an effete Dauphin.
According to program notes, this is neither a pro-war nor anti-war play, although it has been mounted as both, but a “going-to-war” play. It’s unlike the great Laurence Olivier film, a virulent propaganda movie extolling British troops to patriotism or a 1969 Vietnam-era production that blasted all wars.
Whatever its interpretation, “Henry V” is a reminder that leaders can be flawed yet heroic, willing to admit their faults as well as celebrate their achievements. The RSC’s Henry doesn’t bluster, doesn’t condescend, but is reluctant and compassionate, “a little touch of Harry in the night.”
--David A. Rosenberg
April 20, 2016