Zach Appelman portrays King Henry V in the new Robert Richmond production of “Henry V” playing at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Director Richmond says the play “really resonates right now” due to its war themes.
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.