Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Review: Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Production of Henry V

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Henry V is my favorite of Shakespeare’s works, so I was eager to see the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of it. Artistic Director Michael Kahn has paired Henry V with Richard II into ‘The Leadership Repertory,’ which I will further discuss later. The production engaged me from start to finish and did not disappoint.

I regard Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film adaptation as an iconic masterpiece, and heading into the play, I could not help but wonder how much this staged version would align with or borrow from the film. As it turned out, quite a bit. The actor playing Exeter, Derrick Lee Weeden, has a voice strikingly similar to the Exeter of Branagh’s film, Brian Blessed. Some of the costuming in the play seemed similar too, although Henry’s costume was not as visually striking, employing more drab colors. Both the film and stage adaptations also included appearances by the repudiated Falstaff, who does not appear in the text of the play. Branagh utilized flashbacks to scenes of Hal with Falstaff in order to offer insight into Hal’s transformation. In the Kahn production, Falstaff appears onstage, but begins coughing and promptly exits. He next appears on his deathbed, and Mistress Quickly bemoans that “The king has killed his heart.” The demise of Falstaff is at once too remote from his repudiation at the hands of the new king, and yet too rapid after his appearance on stage to possess any coherent meaning.

In addition, the actors portraying King Charles VI of France played the role very similarly. Paul Scofield’s masterly portrayal in 1989 has undoubtedly influenced nearly every portrayal since.  Both portrayed Charles as an elderly wisdom figure, but also defeatist and downtrodden. Charles’s failure as a king stems from his inability to infuse his deputies with his own apprehension of the danger France faces, including his son, the Dauphin. In the play, Charles never takes to the battlefield himself, a stark point of contrast with the lionhearted Henry.

However, the differences between the two versions strike me as more important. First, the treatment of the church and priests. In the Branagh version, the clergy serve as deadly serious counselors to their king, whereas the clergy in the Kahn version appeared sarcastic at times, almost as if they wanted to use Henry’s ambition to further their own aims.

Another notable difference concerns humor. The Branagh version contains almost no humor – even the scenes with Falstaff end in serious consequences. Branagh seems to suggest Henry and his surroundings must maintain a great degree of gravity in order to dramatize Henry’s transition from wayward youth to effective monarch. Kahn takes a different approach. Humor abounds, even on the battlefield of Agincourt. Branagh expunges any possible humor from the scenes involving Pistol and Katherine. Kahn employs far more humor, which in my mind is truer to Shakespeare, who regularly mingles levity and seriousness throughout his writing. I do not prefer one interpretation over another; they both have lessons to teach.

Furthermore, while Branagh does not have Henry order the execution of his French prisoners, Kahn does. Thus Kahn unveils a hard edge to Henry’s leadership that the Branagh version, despite all its seriousness, does not affirm. I found the scene difficult to watch for its sad dearth of humanity in an otherwise noble king. Henry revealed an element of inhumanity in speech at Harfleur, but calls it forth into horrible action at Agincourt.

What lessons should a viewer take from this rendition from Kahn? The humor has a point, in these troubled times. The past two years, at least, have proven quite serious, tough and humorless for millions of people. Kahn may have deliberately inserted the humorous dimensions to lift up (or at least distract) the audience from its weariness.

We see more humanity from Kahn’s Henry as well. He obviously struggles to engage and woo Katharine. He clearly agonizes, after the fact, over the execution of Bardolph. I have already mentioned the execution of the French prisoners. All of these instances reveal Henry – who might otherwise seem nothing short of ideal – to be a fallible, complex man. Taking into account the Wall Street scandals, political failures and leadership disappointments throughout the world, Kahn may have thought it laughable to present Henry as a perfect, unsullied king.

However, Kahn’s living Henry retains the vitality and strength of Shakespeare’s textual character. He shows himself a quick decision-maker and firm in his pursuit of his plans. He finds moments for self-reflection, inspiring his followers in action and speech.

Furthermore, I wonder what, if anything, Kahn tries to teach the audience by pairing Henry V with Richard II into ‘The Leadership Repertory’? And I wonder if he reinforces that message by having one actor, Michael Hayden, play both roles? In what follows, I clearly speculate, so take my musings with more than a grain of salt. Through his ineffectual leadership, Richard II loses his crown and ultimately his head. And yet, he seems to learn from his failings. In Kahn’s unusual pairing, Richard can learn and find redemption, almost rebirth, as Henry. Can a man effect the same change in his leadership?

Last, I wonder if we should pay attention to the timing and location of Kahn’s work. The location, Washington, D.C., cries out for political reflection in its arts. But what about timing? Not knowing the theatre industry, I do not know how far in advance the Shakespeare Theatre Company planned these plays. Kahn might very well be providing an insight into our current political situation and our current political leadership. Again, here I speculate and do not intend to argue whether Kahn actually makes these statements or whether I agree with them.

Kahn perhaps wants to reflect the dominant liberal position of the left-leaning party in politics, and one might interpret that he wants to celebrate the coming of a supposed Henry in President Obama after the poor leadership of President Bush. Or, perhaps Kahn is not making a partisan statement about leadership. Maybe he simply wants to offer a moment of reflection for contemporary leaders. Over the course of years past, in almost all settings – business, politics, religion, media – our leaders have monumentally failed their followers.  By pairing these two plays together, Kahn holds a mirror before today’s leaders, and asks them to peer into their own souls. His audience experiences the repercussions of poor leadership, for both the leader and his followers. Tragically, leaders do not, nor cannot, always foresee these repercussions; this lesson Richard imparts well. They must therefore have an external reminder – a play in which poor leadership has dire consequences. But, through Henry, Kahn also offers the audience a view into the power of transformative leadership, and the difference which such leadership might hope to effect. Perhaps Kahn ultimately asks the leaders of today to make the same personal reflections of Richard in order that they might become the transformative – and transformed – leader of Henry.


3 Responses

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  1. In your review of the Shakespeare Company’s Henry V, I was glad that you mentioned Falstaff. If you look closely at the Playbill, the actor who plays Falstaff has in his credits a JD in contrast to an MFA or BFA which many of the other members of the fine cast have. T. Anthony Quinn, Assistant US Attorney, plays Falstaff. During law school, Quinn was a member of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. Later at the Department of Justice, then AG Janet Reno asked him frequently to emcee her department-wide award ceremonies. At long last, DC is being treated with a magnificent rendition of Falstaff by one of the biggest attorneys in our Nation’s Capital.

    Anne House

    March 10, 2010 at 8:36 pm

  2. […] post, my review of Henry V, had 207 hits, making it my most-visited post […]

  3. […] Review: Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Production of Henry V March 2010 2 comments 3 […]

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