The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage season opened Friday night with a stark and darkly realistic production of Shakespeare's "Henry V," directed by Joseph Haj.
"Henry V" is the final part of the trilogy that chronicles Henry's transformation from carousing youth to mature statesman. At the end of "Henry IV, Part 2", the newly crowned King Henry exhibited qualities of leadership that were only fleetingly glimpsed in the Prince Hal of "Henry IV, Part 1." As prince, he mingled easily with London's underclass. Now, as Henry V, he can walk among all his subjects, both noble and common.
The setting of the play is Henry's war against the French. We are once again reminded that most of the previous reign was about efforts to quell domestic insurrection. When the king's father died at the end of "Henry IV, Part 2," he cautioned his son to distract his unruly nobility from civil infighting, "to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels." Searching for a reason to invade France, he queries his advisers and clergy. Based on some rather arcane reasoning, they give Henry an excuse for invasion: he is the rightful King of France. Follow the bloodlines.
Director Haj focuses less on the play's patriotic exhortations and more on the burdens of kingship and the personal consequences of war. The characters we've met in the other "Henry" plays are here — Mistress Quickly, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym. Only the outrageous Falstaff is missing. Each is a part in the picture of the devastating effects of an ultimately victorious war.
The production is lean and spare, with minimal scenery, with set and costumes in shades of black, white and gray. Haj notes that his production was inspired by photographic images from the Vietnam War for "a non-sentimental look" at Shakespeare's story.
The action is fast-paced, punctuated by a wonderfully effective percussion score designed by composer Todd Barton and superbly performed in the gallery above the stage by Kelvin Underwood.
While the English here are dressed in heavy, vaguely Elizabethan gear for the soldiers and mid-20th-century overcoats for the officers, the French are presented as effete and decadent. It is a clear contrast of good and evil, hero and villain.
Occasionally, however, Haj's concept of the king's personal responsibility for the acts of war goes awry, specifically in the scene where Henry personally metes out Bardolph's punishment for stealing from a church. Nothing in what we've seen of Henry's character — nor in Shakespeare's depiction of this particular king — would indicate such direct participation. It is a particularly jarring note.
John Tufts does a beautiful job of completing Prince Hal's character arc. It is hard to be nuanced on the vastness of the outdoor stage and Tufts manages to do it. Over the three consecutive seasons of the Festival's productions of Shakespeare's "Henry plays," Tufts has grown and matured before our very eyes.
The rest of the repertory cast, most of whom play multiple roles, also do their usual fine job.
If the production has problems, they stem from some ambitious production design and staging concepts and the limitations of the Elizabethan Stage's sound system and acoustics.
I loved the use of a curtain of rain in front the soldiers sitting under the gallery as they discuss the coming battle with the disguised king among them. But the spectacular visual and sound effects also drown out the actors' voices and the poignant dialogue is mostly lost. Similarly, Haj has staged many scenes with the actors facing the back of the stage. Unfortunately, this, too, doesn't work because you often can't hear what the actors are saying.
Nor does the staging work for Jeff King's larger-than-life Fluellen. His character loses much of his impact because his words simply cannot be heard. We hear his Welsh accent, we appreciate his grandiosity, but, other than his scene with Pistol — when Fluellen, facing the audience, comes through loud and clear — we lose much of what Fluellen is saying.
This is director Haj's debut with OSF. He is a young and talented director with an impressive resume. Even with the production's problems, his vision for this "Henry V" is clear and, ultimately, satisfying.
"Henry V" is a strong addition to the season's offerings.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.