Shakespeare’s Henry V is very much a play of words not action, this despite being a play about war (specifically Henry V’s battles in France during the Hundred Years’ War, including England’s remarkable victory in the Battle of Agincourt). Yes, the play includes a couple of fight scenes. And a good designer with a decent budget could wow an audience with an array of battle uniforms and sumptuous court costumes. (This does not happen in this production; Stefanie Johnsen’s costumes are serviceable but not amazing.) But really, the success of Henry V hinges on whether you have an ensemble that knows how to deliver the Bard’s words with confidence and power.
In this department, First Folio’s current revival, directed by Hayley Rice, is a mixed bag. Some of Rice’s actors deliver their lines tolerably well, but others only get the sound of the words, not the feeling behind them. And others mar their delivery with awful attempts at accents (particularly French accents so bad they would make Pepé Le Pew blush).
It doesn’t help that Rice complicates her production with an annoying framing device: Rice takes the character of Chorus (who introduces each act of the play) and turns her into a docent in modern-day England leading a gaggle of gawking tourists through “significant” historical sites. This concept breaks up the flow of the story, and transforms Shakespeare’s intentionally elevated language, meant to tell us we are watching important events in the life of Henry V and England (it is not for nothing that Derek Jacobi played Chorus in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 movie version of this play), into mere tour-guide chatter. I blame Rice’s concept for Lydia Berger Gray’s uninspired delivery of lines that should stir the blood and set the stage for some of the most important moments in Henry’s reign.
None of these flaws really matter, though, because at the center of the production is Diana Coates, an actor so strong and so perfectly cast as Henry that she makes up for the production’s missteps. From the moment she enters the play, she dominates, standing with regal bearing, stalking the stage like a true warrior-king, confident of her strength, always poised for action. And when she speaks, she reveals in every word and pause the full power and poetry in Shakespeare’s lines. This is the second time Coates has played Henry; she was the lead in a version of the play performed by Babes with Blades in 2017 (also directed by Rice), and I hope it is not her last. But it is my greater hope that some wise director will cast her in another Shakespeare play, and another, and another. She’d be a great Hamlet. She would kill as Macbeth. And Lear. Oh, I would pay good money to see her do Lear. v