at the Storefront Theater
Few of Shakespeare’s characters have spawned more debate than Henry V. The historical figure was apparently an unequivocal menace: “He seemed to have no idea of any rule or right or wrong but brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy and archiepiscopal advice,” William Hazlitt wrote two centuries ago. But Shakespeare drew his confounding monarch so coyly that he’s elicited polarized responses from critics and artists alike, a sure sign of potentially great theater.
Numerous heavy hitters have weighed in against the king. Swinburne called him a heartless egoist. To Yeats he was “as remorseless and undistinguished as a natural force.” Harold Bloom seconded Yeats’s characterization of Henry as an “amiable monster.” But the movies have been good to him: Olivier and Branagh loaded their cinematic portrayals with enough noble patriotism to make Dick Cheney look like a peacenik. The most interesting productions navigate between these extremes, somehow convincing the audience to care about a self-described Christian monarch who sends his friends to the executioner, threatens his enemies with rape and dismemberment, and orders prisoners of war up for slaughter. In Next Theatre Company’s 1995 production, director Kate Buckley–perhaps the city’s best interpreter of Shakespeare–set an ingenious middle course: her Hal was an ambitious junior executive suddenly handed the reins of power upon his father’s death, and his ruthless war on France was the result of equal parts naivete, poor counsel, and blood lust.
Sean Graney, whose work with the Hypocrites has proved him an astute and ballsy director, is smart enough to steer clear of extremes in his partly updated production, dubbed Henry 5. In press materials he unapologetically calls Henry a “great king,” making it clear that his effectiveness is measured in power and conquest. As Graney explained to me, he’s not interested in judging the king but in examining what it takes for him to become a successful leader. But his staging curiously makes little use of this question and offers only a cursory glance into Henry’s complex soul.
At first it seems this Henry is ripe for vivisection. As portrayed by boyish everyman John Byrnes, he makes his first entrance with an insouciant swagger, a mink coat draped mafioso-style around his shoulders. A cocky undergraduate suddenly appointed CEO of daddy’s Fortune 500 company, he appears to be in desperate need of a few solid kicks in the teeth–and a rekindling of hostilities with France, encouraged by corrupt clergy hoping to buy royal favor, would likely provide them. But when the French ambassador arrives with a stash of tennis balls–the Dauphin’s flippant response to Henry’s threats of invasion–Henry launches into what seems a prerecorded speech full of by-the-book bluster. Suddenly the character’s engaging vulnerabilities vanish behind a barking holler and puffed-out chest.
Once Byrnes makes this abrupt shift, he never vacillates. Graney may assert that the play is about “Henry’s journey of losing his childish fancies and fears and becoming a great king,” but that journey seems to be completed in the first ten minutes. From then on Henry lunges forward, riding a flood of rhetoric, nearly every speech sounding like the last. We almost never see him act on his strategizing and manipulation, though he leads his ragged army into what seems like certain catastrophe on the fields of France. As a result we can’t measure his character. More often than not he seems to arrive onstage for the sole purpose of delivering his lines with vigor. Since we don’t see him lead, let alone gaze inward, he becomes merely a long-winded cipher not worth puzzling over, which strips the work of its ethical complexities.
We’re left with a play about a war, a position that leaves Graney at a distinct disadvantage. “I feel the war is not important to the play,” he says in press materials. “Henry could just as well have challenged France to a tennis match like the Dauphin wanted.” Graney’s assertion might be defensible if he means that the battle of Agincourt–which only temporarily tilted the Hundred Years’ War back in England’s favor–is merely a convenient backdrop for Henry’s character. But for Shakespeare’s Henry, being at war is everything. This play is not about the education of an unschooled king–before he ever sets foot onstage we learn that he’s abandoned his former wanton ways–but about his desperate land grab. What lies in the balance is England’s complete collapse, creating stakes quite a bit higher than in a game of tennis.
Choosing to treat armed conflict as sport, this production does offer a refreshing alternative to the dour chest thumping that often overruns Shakespeare’s history plays. It also allows for ample humor, especially in the treatment of the French court: the king is an effete squirrel with an Inspector Clouseau accent, dressed like an overblown window treatment in a New Orleans mausoleum. His retinue seem to have little to do but eat fruit and wear tights. When the French court is in session, some aristocrat unrolls a fancy rug and all the French stand motionless upon it, as though they could pose their way to victory.
This kind of gentle clowning has long been one of Graney’s strengths; his masterful Cherry Orchard was one extended clown routine. And when he employs it here, in his treatment of the French and in Kurt Ehrmann’s buffoonish portrayals of the Chorus, the results are charming. But humor is almost entirely absent from the English camp–well over half the cast. Smeared with dirt, they run about cheering and shouting. Even the actual clowns, like Pistol and Nym, tend to mistake noise for craft. Much of the time these actors bludgeon their way through Shakespeare’s text, producing a lopsided reality–the French and English seem to be in two different plays–while creating the kind of hubbub that’s become unfortunately typical of off-Loop Shakespeare.
The Hypocrites have made a name for themselves by reinvigorating classics with a fiery but meticulous exuberance; their explosive, frightening production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros couldn’t have been mistaken for the work of any other company in town. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Henry 5 is its lack of invention. Despite a healthy dose of ingenious foolishness, too often it devolves into lumbering declamatory speeches delivered with more enthusiasm than finesse–it might have been done by any number of troupes. One can only hope the Hypocrites find their voice again soon.