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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Folger Shakespeare Theatre's Henry V

I had the pleasure seeing Henry V at The Folger Shakespeare Theatre yesterday.

I strongly recommend it, and if you are in the Washington DC area, please hurry up and get your tickets. The performance I saw was sold out. The good news is that it has been extended through 10 March.

It has been extended through 10 March

The show was very lively and fast-paced, running just about 2 and 1/2 hours, including intermission.

This was the first time I saw a play at the Folger and I love the theatre. Its relatively small size gave the show an intimate feeling and a sense of immediacy. There was little distance between the audience and the actors, who drew the crowd into the story quickly.

Zach Appelman is a great Henry -- young and strong, but who still has a lot to learn. I liked his sense of vulnerability. He was no stock hero. He showed great comedic skills in the final scene with Katherine.

But what really struck me about his performance was that he never tried to make himself stand out too much from the rest of the cast -- yes he plays Henry, the hero of the play and he drives the story, yet he involved the other actors as much as possible, and made the play more of an ensemble than I expected.

I am used to seeing actors command the stage or screen as Henry, raising themselves above the other actors. But this actor was more collaborative. When he cries "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" and when he tries to inspire his "band of brothers" the words seemed much more sincerely spoken, since his "dear friends" and "brothers" are not just merely two-dimensional flag-bearers.

The rest of the cast was excellent, most of whom did double- and even triple-duty.

Katie deBuys was Katherine and the Boy, and just as good as she was a French princess, she was great as the Boy, and the death scene is just heartbreaking.

Richard Sheridan Willis was very busy as the Chorus, Governor of Harfleur, Jamy and Erpingham, yet he never lost command of the stage.

He was a constant figure on the stage, from the very beginning -- even as the audience was being seated, he patiently sat on the stage in the dark -- and he is the last person we watched as the play came to an end.

I often try to imagine which roles would have been performed by Shakespeare's original company of actors.

Richard Burbage would have played Henry, the very first actor to do so.

It is well known that the great comedian Will Kemp was Falstaff, but when he quit the company around the time that Henry V was first performed (in March 1599) Shakespeare had to get rid of the character. That's why Falstaff dies offstage.

I'm sure Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences were not happy that they weren't getting to see Kemp.

I agree with James Shapiro's claim that Shakespeare himself played the part of the Chorus. But after watching this performance, I wouldn't be surprised if Shakespeare played several roles, like Mr. Willis did. It seems appropriate.

Shakespeare performed the play at a time when English soldiers were about to go fight in an escalating war with the Irish. The commander of these men was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was Shakespeare's patron.

I think that Shakespeare had many goals in writing this play. He wanted to lift the spirits of his Elizabethan audience who were doubtful and afraid of this never-ending war. He wanted to bolster Essex as a great military leader, in the tradition of Henry V.

I think he also wanted to give voice to the common people who were actually going to fight, and their loved ones who stay behind, like Mistress Quickly.

This would have two purposes. One, it allows his audience to relate to the play. Two, it would have been an opportunity for Essex to hear the voices of the people he wished to lead.

I think Essex would have been in the audience, watching this play, when it was first performed. It is well known that he went to the playhouses very frequently. The play would have been a celebration for him, but Shakespeare also was teaching Essex a lesson.

Essex was the most popular military leader at the time, what with his previous victory in Cadiz, Spain. But in writing Henry as a young man who is becoming a great leader of men, Shakespeare is appealing to Essex, a young man who had yet to fulfill his promise as a great leader of men.

Well, sadly for Essex, he was no Henry, and he was not victorious in Ireland.

That may be one more reason why the play was well received in 1599 and why it has endured. It shows a hero in the making who is human, all too human. Sometimes heroes win, and often they lose. But soldiers die in every battle.

The play is not just about the hero. It is about the common man, the foot soldier.

That is why I think this production of the play was so good, and the director Robert Richmond deserves great credit for this. He balanced all of the actors, almost equally, even Henry.

I look forward to more Shakespeare at the Folger, and I hope you have a chance to see this Henry V for yourself.

Cheers,

David Schajer