Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Once more, William Shakespeare’s “Henry V” will swash and buckle its way across the Folger Theatre’s stage.
The production, which opened Jan. 22, was finishing rehearsals while Washington was in the grip of the frenetic pomp and circumstance of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
“It was my first inauguration,” director Robert Richmond said. “It was great. I’m staying on the Hill, as well. It was amazing to feel that kind of energy.”
Richmond, a U.K. expat, told his cast to draw from the inaugural experience.
“Just the emotion of it is exactly what we have to capture,” he told them. “[The show] has to have that kind of human fervor.”
“Henry V,” the last in the Bard’s four-play royal saga, shows the young Prince Harry featured in the earlier plays, as a grown-up King Henry. The man has lost the awkward charm of youth and has matured into a warrior king and leader of state. Henry drips with the charisma necessary to lead scores of his countrymen into, and ultimately through, the horrors of war.
“I think it really resonates right now,” Richmond said. “And it really resonates in Washington, D.C.”
“I think that everybody has encountered some of the famous speeches from the play. Everyone comes to the play with some sort of preconception,” Richmond continued.
It’s interesting that this historical drama is one of the Bard’s most popular and oft quoted, because this isn’t a light comedic number. More than other Shakespeare plays, “Henry V” requires the audience to work in conjunction with director and actors, to let their imagination take over, in order to see the play fully realized in their mind’s eye.
The character of Chorus is the audience’s guide through the action. He welcomes the audience by acknowledging the shortcomings inherent in trying to stage an epic story of war in the theater.
“‘We are just a small group of people, we don’t have everything we need, but if you use your imagination then it will all come together,’” Richmond says, a paraphrase of Chorus’ early lines. In other words, the audience is on the hook to picture the scenes. It is the imagination of the collective that will sweep the actors from the set to the battleground, where hundreds and hundreds of soldiers hack at each other from horseback.
The Greater Share of Honor
Like the two most famous productions of “Henry V,” Richmond’s show is very much a product of its time in history.
In the 1944 Lawrence Olivier production, the play was seeped in the patriotism of World War II. When Olivier’s Henry called out to his countrymen — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” — he was rallying not only the troops on the screen but his country and the allied forces.
The 1989 Kenneth Branagh version, on the other hand, was shot in the aftermath of the Falklands War. This version is a darker, more ambivalent portrayal of an old colonial power coughing through war.
In preparation for this new production, Richmond revisited these film versions, then sat through three other productions of the show.
“I don’t think Shakespeare wrote a pro-war or an anti-war play,” he said. “It is about the humanity of war, what happens to the people who survive.”
As Shakespeare portrays it, war changes the individual and the collective forever. People leave conflict psychologically changed. The military changes strategy with each conflict. National borders shift and technology evolves.
“As the groundlings watched the play [during Shakespeare’s time], there was a war going on and many of their loved ones were off fighting,” Richmond said. Therefore, a play about the human cost of war wasn’t lost on this lot.
According to the director, every character in “Henry V” has to lose something to gain a future. Beloved friendships change, lives are lost, but life keeps moving on.
One character in this play, Bardolph, has been portrayed in other productions as a coward shaking on the battlefield. In this version, Richmond shows him to be a soldier struggling from post-traumatic stress.
Another moment explores what happens to a soldier when he loses someone back home, away from the war. How does a career soldier process a personal loss off the battlefield in a place meant to be safe?
The actual Henry V brought together a nation, and the play dramatizes that moment when the Welshman, Scotsman and Irishman come together to fight for an English king.
Shakespeare argues that it is the mark of a great leader to persuade his subjects to let go of ideological and ethnic polarities and band together. Well, at least, temporarily.
What Feat He Did That Day
Like most of Shakespeare’s historical plays, there are moments of levity — though it is in this play that the Bard kills off Falstaff, his great comedic buffoon.
“I do think that the play does have somewhat of a happy ending,” the director insisted.
At the end of “Henry V” the English king woos Catherine, a French royal. It is an awkward, lovely scene where a couple tries to connect, fumbles and ultimately succeeds.
“It’s beautiful watching two people who can’t speak each other’s language,” Richmond said. “That is a sort of cathartic experience.”
At that point, Chorus re-enters to remind the audience that all does not end well for our brave, young king.
“It’s brilliant!” Richmond said of the Bard’s undercut.
In that moment of catharsis, the playwright reminds the audience that there are no real happy endings. Rather, there is just a series of joyful punctuations across a span of time.