Henry V at Shakespeare and Company, with Glances Forwards and Backwards

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Henry V
by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare and Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
Performance Dates: June 18 – August 23

Director:  Jenna Ware
Costume Designer:  Govane Lohbauer
Set/Properties Designer:  Patrick Brennan
Lighting Designer:  James Bilnoski
Sound Designer/Composer:  Andy Talen
Vocal Coach:  Corinna May
Stage Manager:  Fran Rubenstein

Caroline Calkins as Bishop of Ely, Boy, Katherine
Jonathan Croy as Chorus, Westmoreland, Pistol, French King, Soldier
Kelly Galvin as Chorus, Monk, Scroop, Constable, Governor, Soldier, Burgoyne
Jennie M. Jadow as Chorus, Grey, Bardolph, Orleans, Alice, Erpingham, Soldier
Tom Jaeger as Chorus, Exeter, Fluellen, soldier
David Joseph as Bishop of Canterbury, Nym, York, Dauphin
Sarah Jeanette Taylor as Chorus, Monk, Mountjoy, Hostess, Cambridge, Gower, Soldier
Ryan Winkles as Henry V

As the years pass I find more and more to admire in Shakespeare and Company. At the moment, I’m thinking of the company’s vitality in carrying on with a full season and most if not all of its rich variety of educational programs intact after one more of the several financial and administrative crises that have struck in recent years. Company old-timers Jonathan Croy (twenty-ninth season) and Ariel Bock, who arrived as an acting apprentice in 1979, have taken over the artistic management on an interim basis, and another, Stephen G. Ball (twenty-seventh season), is now Interim Managing Director and General Manager. Much of this upheaval has been shrouded in mystery, but nothing could inspire one simply to let all this go and look to the future than the Shakespearean season opener, an invigorating, insightful, and moving “pocket” production of the most famous and beloved of the history plays, Henry V.

It has been the company’s practice to intersperse the larger-scale main stage productions with these smaller shows, which involve considerably shortened texts, minimal sets and costumes, and small casts, with actors playing multiple roles. Drawn variously from educational, main company repertory, or, like Henry V, freshly created, these often follow hard upon the modern season opener. By temperament I crave Shakespeare in his full expanse, but Shakespeare and Company have developed such skill in editing, directing, and acting these short versions that I now look forward to them. To begin with the practice is supported by that of the acting companies in Shakespeare’s time. They presented the plays under different circumstances, not only at The Globe, but at court, the Inns of Court, private entertainments, and on the road, when an outbreak of the plague closed the theaters in London. Tina Packer specifically invoked the last of these for her brilliant production of Julius Caesar last season, Part of their success comes from the fact that no single plan lies behind them. Different directors choose different principles and aesthetics. The least convincing of these premises, a Hamlet reduced to the memories flashing through the protagonist’s mind as he was dying, led to a rich, satisfying production, thanks to the splendid performances of the actors. As in most successful theater, the creative process on stage takes precedent over the concept. For me the finest of them all was Julius Caesar, which allowed subtle beauties in Shakespeare’s storytelling, imagery, and language to shine in a way most complete productions fail to achieve. (Performances were strong throughout, enlivened by some new blood in James Udom’s powerful Mark Antony. Andrew Borthwick-Leslie’s colorfully inflected Casca also deserves special mention.)

If Jenna Ware’s Henry V was not quite the epiphany that Julius Caesar was, it came close. Based on a thoughtful, convincing understanding of the play, in which Henry’s emerging gifts of leadership and coming of age as king are balanced against the cynical adventurism behind the war and the tragic toll it claimed from all participants, high and low, it focused on Shakespeare’s genius as a story-teller, shown to special advantage in this play, because he was indeed telling a well-known story, popular with audiences, as the upbeat, patriotic story of how the reformed wastrel prince, against great odds, won a victory in France, a French queen, and dictated terms to the defeated, humiliating those who had attempted to humiliate him and his country. Shakespeare enriched the narrative with his full rhetorical bloom, the path into a deepening of the characters and the moral import of their situation. In their very different ways the eloquence and energy of Henry’s flights and the comic scenes in Eastcheap are equivalent. There is something to Ms. Ware’s statement that Shakespeare was at the height of his powers in this play and that magical year 1599 (roughly: Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet!) although I’m generally sceptical of such reductions. Henry V, like the others, has a depth and balance, that suggests a “classical moment” in the playwright’s development. In any case her direction and the gifts of her cast brought all this to the fore—all the more powerfully through the minimal textual and physical means she had at her disposal.

Through the eighteenth into the first half of the twentieth century, Henry V became stereotyped as a spectacle, and a vehicle for a high-profile actor as the young king. The court scenes demanded elaborate sets and costumes, and the battle scenes many supernumeraries. In this Ware carried the Elizabethan practice of assigning multiple characters to each actor about as far as it could go, with some actors playing as many as seven parts, including a few lines of the Prologue, which was diced up among the ensemble—an effective way to disorient audience members familiar with the orotund traditional Prologue, get everyone to listen, and draw them into the play. Of course the assigning of multiple parts is not so uncommon, but in this case, it made for a particularly energetic romp through the play—an exquisite mixture of heaven and hell for the actors, I imagine.

Jennie M. Jadow, Ryan Winkles and Caroline Calkins. Photo John Dolan.
Jennie M. Jadow, Ryan Winkles and Caroline Calkins. Photo John Dolan.

Caroline Calkins progressed from an amusing Bishop of Ely to a poignant portrayal of the Boy slain by the Dauphin’s men, to an especially stylish and peppery Katherine—no easy conquest for the awkward, virtually Frenchless Henry. Jennie M. Jadow, among her variety of roles, which included Grey, Orleans, Alice, and Erpingham, brought off a colorful, then pitiable Bardolph, as he finds that his luck has run out, and what for him was routine looting brought him to the gallows, his old friendship with Henry being of no avail. Sarah Jeanette Taylor brought memorable color to a variety of short roles—a Monk, Mountjoy, Cambridge, and Gower—but she had her chance to shine as the Hostess, Pistol’s wife. She spoke the famous account of Falstaff’s death with a fresh mixture of comedy and pathos, which remained on the dry side, all for the better. Kelly Galvin played another Monk, Scroop, the Governor, and Burgoyne, but I was especially intrigued by the different facets of the Constable she was able to bring out in the character’s relatively brief time on stage. The irrepressible David Joseph seemed to have more energy and wit than ever, with his broadly comic Bishop of Canterbury, earthy Nym, insufferably bratty Dauphin, as well as York. Tom Jaeger, after creditable small turns as Exeter and a soldier, gave his strong presence to Fluellen, an especially affecting figure in Jaeger’s hands—especially important in this production as a foil to King Henry and witness to the grinding misery of war. Most of all, Jonathan Croy seemed to revel in his multiple personalities as Westmoreland, Pistol, and the French King—all very strong and focused characterizations. Each seemed in the round and possessed of a long emotional range. Pistol’s interaction with his wife, the Hostess, especially as Falstaff approached and met his end, was memorable, and the mentally strong, but physically infirm French King was especially touching, as he was compelled to deal with misfortunes not of his own making. Croy seemed to be in his element throughout the play, introducing dynamic energy into every scene he was in, which was in fact a great many. He and Jenna Ware are a married couple, and their close communication about the show was eminently apparent. Pretty much everyone played “a soldier” at some point or other.

Only one actor kept to a single part, Ryan Winkles as Henry V, one of the very great roles in Shakespeare. This was a deeply thought-out, controlled portrayal of the young King. At the beginning Henry takes pains to behave correctly—to outlive his former reputation as a follower of Sir John Falstaff and his disreputable gang—to exercise discernment in his dealings with potentially dangerous people, like Cambridge, and to remain firm in his decisions. This course of action has its maturing effect on him, but the wrenching experience of leading men and boys to their deaths brought him even further, to a full realization of his moral responsibility. The culmination of this, at the end of the night scene in the English camp before the battle, was the crux of Jenna Ware’s production—not the victory—and was magnificently executed in the extended scene, which occupied most of the second half of the performance. Winkles was able to touch many expressive notes, especially as the play and his character developed. He showed himself to be an actor of exceptional imagination and empathy. One can look forward to his Hamlet, Richard II, and others. One aspect of Henry’s character comes out especially strongly in Ware’s production (and her editing of the text) is his Roman piety and devotion, rather in the spirit of Richard II, whom he is scrupulous in honoring. This reaches a climax in his words about St. Crispin’s Day, when, in Ware’s and Winkles’ interpretation, he appears to have filled out his pious observance with deep feeling for the human suffering he has just lived through. In this Henry is establishing a commemorative day for the nation, identified with a saints’ day traditional in the Church. The audience would have expected some observation of this in Shakespeare’s play, and he didn’t disappoint them, composing some of the most moving patriotic rhetoric in literature, here full of sadness and painful self-realization, as it should be.

The audience responded with warm applause, and with special enthusiasm for Andy Talen, the composer. He had the simple, brilliant idea of having the actors sing simple tunes reflecting the period and location, sometimes in canon. This was entire effective and often actually moving. The actors their parts well, in tune and with understanding. This was by far the most effective use of music I have found at Shakespeare and Company, which often resorts to recorded stage music of a “standard” level, to put it politely. They are not the only classical stage company with this weakness by any means. I hope this marks a change for them. It’s not hard or expensive to arrange for simple, effective live music.

The weakest scene on the opening night was a scene in Eastcheap involving a tangle of sight-gags carried off by the ensemble. This treatment of Shakespeare’s earthy humor, bringing his bawdy language home to an audience that doesn’t know the language, has been popular with directors since the sixties, when the British censors progressively began to relax. The problem is that it is very difficult to bring off. The actors literally jumped into it with all their enthusiasm and agility, but—on this night—is just wasn’t funny. I suspect quite a few in the audience would disagree with me, however. I’m pretty sure that this is one scene that will evolve considerably over the run, and by the time you read this, you’re more likely to catch it in prime form. Shakespeare and Company works very hard on this kind of humor, and they are usually very good at it. While there was too much of a good thing in The Tempest a few years ago, the 2014 Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Tony Simotes, was a triumph. The night I saw it, everything in this extremely energetic and physical production was came off brilliantly. There seemed to be no limit to the athleticism and energy of players like David Joseph and the brilliant newcomer, Cloteal L. Horne, whom we will see again this season in A Comedy of Errors and other productions.

As summer 2015 sets off so happily with Henry V, I think it worth remembering what a successful Shakespeare season it was last year, with the radiant Dream set in New Orleans, the cleverly compressed, fast-moving Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, and of course the great Julius Caesar. It’s also worth noting that the company set its mark on New York theatre, when three superb actors from it appeared in Michael Boyd’s historic production of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine at the Theater for a New Audience. John Douglas Thompson and Merrit Janson played opposite one another as Othello and Desdemona a few years ago, and the exceptionally gifted James Udom I have already mentioned. Some find Shakespeare and Company performances rough and uneven. Once one understands the way the company works and the way productions evolve over their run will appreciate their experimental, process-centered quality. Recently, reading David Thomson on Orson Welles’ film of Othello—of which three different “finished” versions exist, I was surprised that he demoted it below Welles’ Macbeth, because of its unfinished quality, when Welles himself stressed its experimental quality in his fascinating Filming Othello. But isn’t that the nature of any production, especially on stage? No director or actor can ever have the final word, and that is what the people at Shakespeare and Company understand very well.

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