BWW Reviews: Oregon Shakespeare Fest's HENRY V - Propaganda Tale that Still Delivers
Hopefully you’re joining us already prepped on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. What it is, what it does, how utterly massive it is for a theater festival, etc. If not, check out Part 1 of this double feature. However, if you already know, then on we go!
HENRY V is…an interesting play. Interesting for several reasons, the most peculiar being that I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who said that this was their favorite Shakespeare play. I have met people who loveto talk about this text, though. Love to. Three years of university spent studying Shakespeare, this play came up every time. And let me make it perfectly clear…being a worthy discussion topic 400 years after being written is a good reason to see a play.
So go see it. I’ll say that now. HENRY V is a staple in Shakespeare’s canon, the production is on a classic Elizabethan stage setting, and the quality of the performance is incredibly solid. I’m doing my best to keep comparisons out of it regarding Parts One and Two, but where ROMEO AND JULIET rocked the entertainment value, HENRY V steams through in showcasing actors’ ‘Shakespeare chops’. It is worthwhile, it’s a good experience, go have fun.
Now let’s address those elements so worth discussing, and I’ll do my best to not make this seem nitpicky, because I don’t want you getting the impression that I dislike this play. In fact, in order to keep it short, I’m going to umbrella that which problematizes this text, that which sets HENRY V apart from the rest of Shakespeare’s work, and I shall call this umbrella, the ‘sell-out’…brella.
The first observation to make is that this is one of Shakespeare’s most morally and dramatically ‘black-and-white’ texts. See, the reason Shakespeare as a discussion source hasn’t tapped out yet is because of Shakespeare’s affinity for ‘the grey zone’. That morally ambiguous, poetic justice leaning, dynamic character building, beautiful, beautiful grey zone. Remember Shylock, from MERCHANT OF VENICE? Probably one of Shakespeare’s most evil characters (pardon the anti-Semitism), yet even he was a just a business man making an agreed upon and therefore legitimate business deal. Isabella in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, raises the question, ‘do you sleep with one man to save the life of your brother’? There’s a reason they called that one a problem play. Ambiguity, especially moral ambiguity, is extremely prevalent in the majority of Shakespeare’s texts, because he was a really good playwright. He could do better than one-dimensional characters, and he could do better than one-dimensional storylines.
And then there’s HENRY V, where the French are rubbish and Henry is awesome. Really awesome. Not like how he was in HENRY IV when he was woefully immature (there’s even a speech about how woefully immature he used to be in the beginning of HENRY V). Now he’s Anglo-Jesus, ridding the world of pompous, horse-loving French people. There’s not much ambiguity there, neither in character nor plot, so why does it still spark so much discussion? Because that’s not how Shakespeare plays normally work! This is an outlier, an anomaly. Why has this happened?
The second observation to make concerning the text is a certain lack of unity. Another rarity for Shakespeare. Perhaps the material itself, the vastness of the story to be told, was just too much (even for the Bard). The scenes jump in time and location during almost every transition, between France and England and a bar and a battlefield, and all the while with a chorus member apologizing for the nature of the Elizabethan theater style. We are implored to use our imaginations to picture battles and time passing…but when did Shakespeare become so self-conscious regarding such a widely accepted style of theater? A style that he had already achieved monumental success with, as well! The Elizabethan style of ‘assumed location’ is familiar to everyone, why does it need to be apologized for? Yes, there’s not a great transitional flow in such a dramatic changing of scene and time, but you’re Shakespeare, and it’s a red flag for us if you suddenly get wary of the discourse.
So there we have two anomalies, present in the same text, suggesting that Shakespeare was either not comfortable writing this play, or it wasn’t his natural voice and approach for style. Both options lead us back to our problematizing umbrella, which you may stand under, or not, as you choose.
Here it is: this play was written largely as propaganda. Some readings suggest this was a play commissioned by the crown, but that’s not even a theory we need subscribe to in order to see the nature of this play. A 180-degree character swing from HENRY IV to HENRY V, written during a time of an unpopular military effort by England, structured around the inevitable victories of a godly king who makes fantastic speeches about the value of laying down one’s life for their country, all while showing such a discomfort in the story that it suggests an ulterior motive for writing the thing. This is a play designed to make an audience believe in the righteousness of the great English bloodline, and I submit that Shakespeare was attempting to draw parallels between a worthy monarchy then and a worthy monarchy in his present. Thus we dub this the 'sell-out'-brella because maybe this is the text that shows even the greatest playwright can be bought. Maybe.
There it is, you can take that or leave it, but I thought it would be worthwhile to bring up, to give everyone a bit of context. And hopefully it’s an interesting enough suggestion that it piques your interest in this production. If not though – here’s a few more reasons to see this play:
Production value hits the mark with its sets. In keeping true to the Elizabethan style, the majority of the thrust stage is left bare, allowing The Players to move around in the space and for us to fill that space with whatever our mind can fathom. You do get a bit of setting though, and it’s pulled off in an excellent way. Mostly it’s subtle and subdued, which is harder to do in some ways than a big lavish set, but it’s done so perfectly you just want to shake one of the designers by the hand. I noticed it most when the French court was on, and the use of color there seems effortless, but really creates the entirety of the mood.
Here’s my favorite part though. I harp on about the intention behind the writing (is it legitimate? etc.) but no matter what…those speeches are incredible. And to pull them off, you must bring forth an incredible passion. I don’t mean loud and animated, but you have to mean it. You have to make an audience feel chills when they hear the Crispin’s Day speech, or ‘unto the breach’. JOHN TUFTS, who plays King Henry V, delivers. I walk into Shakespeare plays knowing exactly what I’m going to get, but I still sat up straight when Tufts went at it, the rest of the soldiers around him slowly rising to his words. I’m not flamboyantly patriotic, nor am I easily struck, but I tip my cap when it’s due and if the iconic speeches alone were reason for you to go, then you won’t be disappointed.
Lastly, an interesting casting decision that’s caught me off guard. The Duke of Exeter, played by Howie Seago, is a deaf actor. A very accomplished one, too, if research holds true. There is, of course, the argument that it doesn’t matter, we should see past these things, and Mr. Seago is more than capable. I don’t disagree with any particular point. However, being also the director that he is, I believe Mr. Seago would agree that every decision you make for a production affects your theater. Every casting decision affects what the audience reads from their viewing.
Here’s a funny problem though, I really can’t figure out what to make of it. The only read I’m getting is the effect on character relationship in who signs to the Duke of Exeter so that he understands, and who simply speaks to him and assumes he hears. But there’s more! I know in my gut that it’s done more to me in my viewing of the play, but wrestle with it as I might I am falling short. Maybe it does nothing. Production-wise it’s fairly seamless, at least it was for me. The person I attended this play with found the signing from side-stage distracting, and maybe you will too. Email me your thoughts, though, once you’ve seen it. I’d be interested to know what other people are picking up. It remains for me, a fascinating mystery.
Anyway, enough from me. If you’re still electing not to see it then perhaps you’re of the sort that shut off to Shakespeare when forced to read it in high school. But for those of you not so dissuaded, for those of you who enjoy bathing in the language and intrigue of the Bard, might I recommend HENRY V? It will set you right.
Well done, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Well done, indeed.
HENRY V plays through October 12th. For ticketing information, click the link below:
Photo Credit to Jenny Graham. Concept and Illustrations by Owen Jones and Partners, Ltd.