Henry V

Next Theatre Company

Shakespeare’s Henry V would have been right at home in contemporary America, the land where international aggression invariably receives fawning domestic support. Henry invades France, in essence simply because he wants it, wipes out about ten thousand French soldiers, and becomes the “ideal king.” Reagan orders tactical air strikes on Libyan targets, in essence to show he’s a bigger bully than Gadhafi, and generates plenty of national chest thumping on T-shirts tallying downed Libyan airmen. His invasion of tiny Grenada, with its population of 100,000 and corner on the world nutmeg market, is incomprehensibly deemed essential to national security. And when Bush finally pulls out all the stops in the Persian Gulf, murdering untold Iraqi civilians in order to ensure the free world’s right to wear T-shirts indoors in the winter, he and Schwartzkopf attain the highest station in the American pantheon: war hero.

We “peace-loving” Americans, like the “Christian king” Henry V, can turn just about any murderous spree into a holy crusade; military and government leaders, bolstered by a sycophantic press corps (in Henry’s day, courtiers), have little difficulty convincing the general public–and, more frighteningly, themselves–that American might is unfailingly right. Nor is such antiheroic self-deception, the fundamental but often overlooked theme of Henry V, anything new. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1812 that because the British had ruined “the benevolent plan we were pursuing here for the happiness of the aboriginal inhabitants of our vicinities,” we were obliged “to pursue them to extermination.”

In such an aggressive, unreflective, self-congratulatory culture, Henry V can be a dangerous play indeed (just look at Laurence Olivier’s whitewash of Henry in his 1945 propagandistic film adaptation). A superficial reading of the text, which is too often what it gets in our attention-deficited land, would not only justify elevating Reagan or Bush to emperor but grooming Oliver North as heir apparent. Most critics, academics, and theater directors–in other words, those we depend upon to know better–hold Henry aloft as the model Christian king: learned, versed in theology, humble yet courageous, wise, principled, self-sacrificing, and above all inspirational. After all, he overcomes the idle excess of his youthful “wilder days” and, with little except a gift for oratory, leads a severely outnumbered army to victory over France, “the world’s best garden achieved” (just as North, armed with little except a gift for zealotry, overcame the minor hindrances of a Congress and a Constitution to become a senatorial candidate, the world’s best public-relations coup achieved). Even Kenneth Branagh, whose 1989 celluloid melodrama was apparently intended to depict the gruesome realities of war, couldn’t pack in enough slow-motion manly battlefield howls, carefully choreographed disembowelments, and tight-fitting uniforms (war may be hell, but it makes for some great photo opportunities).

The fact is, Shakespeare’s Henry is an eloquent brute. He orders all his French prisoners killed (an atrocity that critic J.H. Walter, in his introduction to the Arden Shakespeare edition of the play, blithely dismisses by remarking, “The rage of the epic hero leading to the slaughter of the enemy within his power is not without Virgilean precedent”). He tricks a once-trusted friend into securing his own execution. He threatens the governor of Harfleur with the image of “[y]our naked infants spitted on pikes.” In general he exhibits little but duplicitous, self-serving ferocity. But all that counts for naught, apparently, since his professed faith in God places him “beyond reach of mortal man,” in the words of renowned Shakespeare critic Dover Wilson. Like North, Henry not only gets the job done, he proclaims allegiance to his country and his god while doing it.

Considering the long history of irresponsible exploitation of Henry V, the Next Theatre’s highly unorthodox interpretation could not be more welcome or refreshing. Directors Kate Buckley and Steve Pickering adhere neither to the traditional lionization of Henry nor to a more modern vilification (critic John C. Bromley writes that Henry’s “only animating principle” as a military leader “is acquisitive violence”). Instead they do an end run around this critical schism, fashioning a king almost entirely lacking in character or personality and utterly lacking in vision, authority, and leadership. He’s neither a hero nor a villain–he’s a chump, a junior politician suddenly up to his neck in a national crisis.

In keeping with Shakespeare’s genius for subversion, Buckley and Pickering work subtly, below the surface. Henry, played with schoolboy charm and bluntness by Bruce Orendorf, at first comports himself admirably, carefully weighing the advice of his counselors as they encourage him to invade France, meeting the insults of the dauphin with dignity and restraint. But Henry’s composure begins to unravel, revealing an inept neophyte plodding along in shoes far too big for him. His great speech before the gates of Harfleur (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”) is reduced to baseless hollers, and when he finally confronts the governor of Harfleur, hoping to intimidate him into laying down his arms, Henry sits cross-legged center stage, pouting and ranting like a ten-year-old locked out of his best friend’s club house.

Henry becomes a complete cipher, a man who never thinks more than half a step ahead, who relies on everyone around him to convince him he’s doing the right thing, and who falls into eloquence by sheer dumb luck. All the while he tries unsuccessfully to maintain a facade of competence and confidence. He is, in the words of Mark Van Doren, “the ideal English king, all plumes and smiles and decorated courage, collapse[d] into…a hearty undergraduate with enormous initials on his chest.” In his last great oration before the battle of Agincourt, usually delivered as unadulterated heroic rhetoric, Orendorf’s Henry disintegrates into a blustery zealot, so wrapped up in his own delusions that he nearly brings himself to tears (reminiscent of North before his congressional investigators).

Buckley and Pickering focus their play not on the development of a king but on the environment that corrupts him and the mind-sets that encourage his headstrong belligerence. This production is not about a monarch but about a hostile, unreflective, disturbingly familiar cultural milieu. Buckley and Pickering create a world of grotesque but all-too-recognizable macho posturings and tissue-thin egos. The royal advisers, well-groomed playground bullies, exploit their indecisive king to freely exercise their own militaristic zeal and secure their court positions, just as numerous U.S. policymakers and military officials spent decades inventing the threat of Soviet world domination in order to appropriate federal funds from obedient, well-flattered American presidents. Whether in the French or English camp, these determined opportunists find the slightest insult to their masculine honor as blood-churning as the prospect of doing battle with another nation.

Next Theatre’s two-hour production reveals the characters’ pathological insularity. Robert G. Smith’s ingenious set design places all the action on an enormous steeply raked wooden oval, the only set pieces being a grandly curved conference table and three wooden chairs. Shelves crammed with books line the periphery of the stage: it’s as though the abuse of power were merely an academic exercise, rehearsed late at night in the musty, windowless stacks, where no exits are visible. Here the men–literally unable to see beyond their self-contained world–play their war games, like the overwrought advisers holed up in the war room in Dr. Strangelove. The women, apparently resigned or indifferent, take a more practical approach: since England is going to invade, and boys will be boys, French princess Katherine spends her time learning English.

In perhaps their most intriguing choice, Buckley and Pickering eliminate the Chorus figure who introduces each act, helps the audience leap across gaps in time and place, and repeatedly apologizes for inadequacies in the script. His lines are divided up among the cast members, who often break character and speak directly to the audience. The overall effect is of a community inventing their own reality, telling themselves what they want to hear. This is a world without the possibility of dissent, where answers to thorny questions are agreed upon in advance, where narrators unthinkingly transform the subjective into the objective. This group could be the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, the Washington press corps, or any blockful of American home owners outdoing one another in displays of yellow ribbons.

Buckley and Pickering’s reading of Henry V is highly subjective; they’ve eliminated about a dozen characters and a quarter of the script (all of the Bardolph-Nym-Pistol chicanery is gone). Still, this production taps the underlying truth in Shakespeare’s text more deeply than any other I’ve seen. It’s also thrillingly paced and exquisitely staged, executed by 12 versatile actors who handle Shakespeare’s language with just the right mix of respect and irreverence. As Henry, Orendorf brilliantly effaces himself (when is the last time you saw a Shakespearean lead actor do that?), and Naama Potok as his war trophy, Katherine, with her regal bearing and impeccable French, is the stuff that dreams are made on.

This production will surely send Shakespearean purists into arrhythmic tachycardia. But by turning Henry V inside out, Buckley and Pickering–like Peter Sellars in last fall’s Merchant of Venice at the Goodman–not only bring hidden textual meanings to light but unearth too-often-ignored pathologies in our culture. You couldn’t ask for more from a piece of theater.