Out of the classroom, on to the stage: Shakespeare's "Henry V

By Nikhil Gupta

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall with our English dead, cries Henry in the inspirational speech delivered by the brilliant commander in the heat of battle. Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is littered with such speeches and images that have become part of Western popular culture and iconography. Yet it is more than just a propagandistic adulation of an English king because Shakespeare chose to weave ironies into the play that reveal the complexities of Henry’s character. The play is currently being performed at the fitting Theatre in the Round (the opening chorus alludes to the play being performed in a “wooden O”). For the most part, the production is truly exceptional and powerful, though at times a bit muddled. Overall Theatre in the Round has staged an accurate and decent representation of “Henry V.”

Perhaps most notable is the chorus. Normally performed by a single actor, the chorus has been restructured to showcase several actors, demonstrating the diversity of personages in England at the time. The result is a powerful showing of the disparate peoples united under Henry’s banner and affected by his decisions. The opening and closing choruses are particularly brilliant, setting both the tone of the play and leaving an impression in the audience’s mind. The production opens with the Boy, a poor street urchin, delivering the opening lines as a young boy infatuated with military heroes and playing with toy soldiers. A few lines in, an aristocrat enters, castigating the Boy as one of the “unraised spirits” daring to perform this history on the stage. This sudden juxtaposition establishes the temper of a performance that focuses not merely on Henry and his charisma, but on the various groups impacted by his war. The final chorus, which warns against the violence of war and provides a discordant note in an otherwise triumphant ending, gave me shivers and hinted at further violence (chronicled in Shakespeare’s tetralogy about Henry VI).

For the most part, the characters were brilliantly brought to life. Fluellen, a Welsh captain who serves as some comic relief, was performed admirably by Andy Babinski (who also performed excellently in Theatre in the Round’s previous production “Loot”), who never failed to amuse with his discourses on the “disciplines of the war.” The character of the Boy was phenomenally acted by seventh-grader Henry Bushnell, highlighting the tragedy of the Boy caught up in a vast conflict beyond his control.
Ian Miller’s portrayal of the title character was also fantastic. He beautifully captured Henry’s naivety-acting out Henry’s best intentions and his failure to understand how is position grants him power over, not a game, but the grim situation of life, death and the humiliation of others. He also delivered Henry’s inspirational speeches with eloquence, showing the charisma of Henry’s character clearly to the audience. All of the actors have been blooded in the Twin Cities theater circuit, and many are veterans of previous Theatre in the Round productions-certainly a cast worth seeing.

Finally, the chaotic Act Four, chronicling the Battle of Agincourt, was exceptional. The act is a giant running battle through which characters meet for dialogue, with skirmishes in the script both on and off stage. The production chose to emphasize the chaos of the battle, filling the theater with a hazy fog and armed combatants continually running on and off stage in pursuit of one another. The theater itself is very personal, and as the body count increased, the brutality of the violence was brought sharply into focus, with dead soldiers strewn across the stage and in the aisles.

There were a few aspects of the performance, however, that left something to be desired. The stage combat itself was far too stylized, and at times appeared childish. Furthermore, some crucial scenes were muddled in their execution. The most notable of these was Act One Scene Three, which reveals the hypocrisy of Henry’s claim to invade France. From the performance on stage, however, it is unclear that the treasonous noblemen betrayed Henry because of the illegitimacy of his claim to the English throne. Communicating this point to the audience is crucial, as it is one of the biggest ironies Shakespeare reveals in Henry’s character, and the failure of its execution was unfortunate.

Act Three Scene Four, which introduces Katherine to the play, was also performed awkwardly. The scene itself is not the best in the play, and is merely a mockery of the French for the sake of humor, but the manner in which it was staged, stripping Katherine of all intelligence in her character, detracted from the overall performance. Finally, throughout the play the circumstances surrounding Bardolph, Nim and Pistol, three common soldiers, were poorly explained, especially Act 3 Scene 6. In the script, Pistol asks Fluellen to help him prevent Bardolph and Nim from being hung for stealing from a church. Fluellen refuses, and when Henry arrives, he orders the execution without meeting the accused. In the production, Bardolph is brought before the king, who acts shocked to see him in chains. While this may perhaps be a reference to Parts One and Two of “Henry IV,” when Henry was a companion of Bardolph, the situation is not explained in the slightest in the production, merely leaving a confused audience.

Despite these shortcomings, the overall production is good, and one that I recommend. “Henry V” runs on weekends through March 2 at Theatre in the Round. Student tickets are $18, adults $20 and reservations are required. For more information, visit www.theatreintheround.org.