BWW Review: HENRY V at Hartford Stage
In Shakespeare's day his plays served multiple purposes. In some cases, they created an escape for the people to forget their troubles and laugh or revel with and through the characters on stage. In others, the stories served as cautionary tales that made audiences think about their own lives through the lens of the troubles portrayed. Yet it was Shakespeare's history plays that aimed to take a pivotal moment in history and not only bring it to life for the audience to witness (and hopefully understand better), but to ground those stories in the present and allow those in attendance (and possibly those in power) to learn from the mistakes of the past. Thus, is the case with HENRY V, the current production being mounted at Hartford Stage.
As it was in the original production at the turn of the 17th century, HENRY V at Hartford Stage is staged in contemporary clothing with select costume pieces added on for effect. Additionally, for only the second time in its 55-year history, the theatre has chosen to stage the play in the round. With minimal set pieces placed on a large floor map of England and France, this production forces the audience to focus primarily on the words for the context of each scene and, as the Chorus notes at the beginning of the play use its thoughts to "deck our kings" and let its "imaginary forces work" to bring the story to life.
As a contemporary audience member, the synopsis provided in the program is extremely helpful in keeping the storyline straight (I highly recommend reading it before the play begins). The play tells the story of England's King Henry V (Stephen Louis Grush) who has recently ascended to the throne and, for various reasons (encouragement of the church, offense from the French, challenge to his right to the French throne), decides to declare war on the French and muster his troops to battle. Throughout the five acts of the play we see the war's impact on a variety of people, from the commoners who have been called to fight, to the military elite as well as the enemy and their men. But HENRY V is most profound when it explores the impact of war on those who have the power to wage it, namely the king himself. Tensions grow, victories are won, all leading to the decisive Battle of Agincourt (scene of Henry's iconic and rousing St. Crispin's Day speech) where the English experience a miraculous victory over a French army. Peace is restored, Henry gains a queen, Katherine (Evelyn Spahr) and all is good (for now).
Hartford Stage's production of HENRY V is a thrilling and engaging story told with a real sense of urgency and one that is as relevant in today's world as it was when it was written. Director Elizabeth Williamson has taken on the difficult task of bringing the story to life for a 21st century audience, made even more complex by the in-the-round and simplified staging. I initially thought I would miss the grand sets that have been a high point of Hartford Stage's last two Shakespeare plays (A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, COMEDY OF ERRORS) but I was immediately drawn in by the energy that the simplicity created. This lack of distraction caused me to focus more on the dialogue and the interactions on stage than the sets and costumes, creating a more immersive and satisfying experience. In this production, imagination is a powerful tool that Ms. Williamson and the cast use to its full effect. The contemporary costuming worked for me, creating strong inferences to the universal challenges of warfare and the toll it takes on all those involved. Though I have heard others comment that the use of actors in multiple roles created some confusion, I felt the subtle shifts in costume (blue coats for the French, green fatigues for the English) worked just fine to define characters and their roles in the story. Also worth noting is the use of a balanced cast of men and women, with some men playing female roles, as they would have in Shakespeare's day, but also with some women playing male roles, adding a modern twist to the practice. Finally, by bringing the audience into the middle of the action (staging in the round, placing some dialogue within the audience), HENRY V becomes personal and relatable, which is quite refreshing.
The acting throughout Hartford Stage's HENRY V is top notch. With a small cast of 15 actors playing 34 different roles, there are many scenes where an actor leaves the stage as one character and enters soon after as another. This is why the subtle costume touches are critical to keeping things straight. That said, the quality of the performances on stage is top notch to the person. Worth calling out are the moments of levity provided by the commoners called to service, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym (Liam Craig, Miles Anderson, and Felicity Jones Latta) and Pistol's bride, Hostess Nell Quickly, played by Baron Vaughn, who is hilarious in the role. Mr. Vaughn's other role, Captain Fluellen also allows him to show off strong acting chops. As King Henry, Stephen Louis Grush delivers a powerful and emotional performance, capturing well his internal struggle in his more introspective scenes, and is inspiring and thrilling during the scenes of battle.
From a creative point of view, though simple, the scenic (by Nick Vaughn), lighting (by Stephen Strawbridge), sound (by Matt Hubbs) and costume (by Beth Goldenberg) designs work well to balance and polish the scenes on stage. Christian Frederickson's original music adds to the tone of the evening and creates a sense of urgency at critical moments in the play.
HENRY V may not make the list of Shakespeare's most popular plays, or get produced as often as, say, HAMLET or ROMEO AND JULIET, but that shouldn't prevent audiences from experiencing the power and emotion that is currently being delivered in this production at Hartford Stage. Though it may be historical in nature, HENRY V is timely, engaging and powerfully relevant for today's world.
HENRY V runs at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through November 11. Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Weekly schedules vary. For tickets or for more information call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.