Trying to make 'Henry V' into an anti-war play

Seattle Shakespeare Company wrenches this patriotic play into the Cold War, in what turns out to be a losing battle.
Crosscut archive image.

David S. Hogan as Bedford and Evan Whitfield as Henry V

Seattle Shakespeare Company wrenches this patriotic play into the Cold War, in what turns out to be a losing battle.

In Henry IV, Shakespeare'ꀙs fat rogue Falstaff won the hearts of Prince Hal and of Elizabethan playgoers. Yet in the sequel to that play, the author has him die offstage, pathetically, in a mid-act throwaway scene. Shakespeare blends bawdy comedy into the regret the audience must have felt, such as we would feel at the passing of Homer Simpson: The tavern hostess who was with Falstaff as he died describes how she has felt his cold feet, and cold knees, and so upward, and upward'ꀦ It'ꀙs a classic clown moment that melds tragedy with farce.

Alas, in the production of Henry V, now showing at Seattle Shakespeare Company, the moment is blown. It'ꀙs not the fault of the actors: Gordon Carpenter, Joseph McCarthy, and Russell Hodgkinson as the dead man'ꀙs fellow miscreants do their best to stagger under the woeful news. But the conception and staging are not successful; the audience is unmoved and barely amused.

The production'ꀙs problems begin with casting errors: Weaker actors play larger roles, which confuses relationships and muddles the dynamics of key scenes. A glad-handing king in a suit lacks status, which compounds the difficulty even a stronger actor would have in striving to emanate a monarch'ꀙs authority. One bright spot is the portrayal of Katherine, daughter to the French king. Crunchy French notwithstanding, Alexandra Tavares plays her as a woman instead of a giggling girl; she brings dignity to the role which it often lacks.

Seattle Shakes productions often break the fourth wall to excellent effect. Here Stephanie Shine passes with hardly a pause from the usual pre-show admonishments to the Chorus'ꀙ opening words: an intriguing intimacy. She shifts, however, from comfortable speech to elevated insincerity. It'ꀙs tremendously difficult to say 'ꀜPierce out our imperfections with your thoughts'ꀝ in the same way you say 'ꀜPlease turn off your cell phones'ꀝ — but that'ꀙs the Chorus'ꀙ job. And because she addresses the audience directly, it might be more effective to let the world of the play stay integral and unbroken, with only the Chorus speaking directly to us. she'ꀙs a framing device and should put a wall around the action.

This production, directed by Russ Banham, is set during the Cold War. Anachronism is tricky to pull off with image-heavy scripts like Shakespeare'ꀙs; his battle plays are especially difficult to translate to modern dress. In Henry V, which tells the story of the great English victory over the French at Agincourt, characters refer repeatedly to drawn swords or the blood speckles on a spur-pricked horse; no amount of carbine-licking or other odd behavior can distract us from our confusion when we realize that none of the combatants has even seen a horse or a sword. These French are outfitted instead as a mix of NATO honor guards and riot police, while the English are kitted as Americans in Vietnam — still more confusing since they'ꀙre the underdogs in the battle. A field telephone makes several appearances, a good notion for rescuing awkward battlefield scenes, but it gets tangled in clunky, suspenseless staging.

A backdrop with Guernica and a pastiche of shock-images from Vietnam further obfuscate the time and place. They issue from another directorial gambit, making Henry V into an anti-war play, "a political satire on the chicanery of war," as they call it. There's something to this concept. Shakespeare was a subversive writer. He puts truths about the horrors and blamefulness of war into the mouths of common soldiers. As a further shadow on its own patriotic triumphalism, the play opens with a cynical scene: An English lord of the church promotes conflict between England and France in order to distract the king from stripping the church of its wealth.

But the English win their great battle; young Henry speechifies, avenges an insult, and gets his girl. The general air of celebration is leavened rather than ironized by the drama'ꀙs darker bits. A more carefully crafted production might have tuned the play to an anti-war message; this one has too much static.

Even less successful stagings of Shakespeare have much to offer, new insights into familiar scenes. Often quoted from Henry V are the rousing speeches by an apologetic Chorus ('ꀜO for a muse of fire'ꀝ) and charismatic King Henry. But the play has greater complexities. Shakespeare'ꀙs low-born comic characters are often tempted by villainy, like the Commedia dell'ꀙArte servants who are their forebears; in The Tempest, for example, Stefano and Trinculo plan to murder Prospero. But in Henry V they are particularly base — cowardly, thieving, faithless. They end badly and provide an extreme contrast to the noble characters and sentiments of the 'ꀜhigh'ꀝ scenes of the play. As with so many Shakespeare plays, the tension between the plot and counterplot sets up interesting resonances well worth listening for.

Seattle Shakes productions are at their best when they let the animal spirits get the upper hand. Their recent Two Gentlemen of Verona did them credit. Once more unto the breach, dear friends'ꀦ

The play runs at Seattle Center through May 9. Tickets available through their website.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors