Shakespeare's Henry V
presented by the Guthrie Theater
and the Acting Company

Henry V is the play with which Shakespeare provided closure for his long series of histories. In the obvious sense, the plot bonds the cycle Richard II/Henry IV with the earlier series Henry VI/Richard III; but the growth of Henry as a ruler--as a character embracing his destiny, however painful--is the culmination of the history plays in a more substantial sense. Shakespeare accomplishes this transformation through an almost tragic isolation of Henry, who first breaks with Falstaff (in the final scene of Henry IV, Part 2), then witnesses the demise of his former cronies throughout Henry V: the deaths of Falstaff, Bardolph, and Mistress Quickly, the humiliation of Nim, and the death of the "boy," their companion with a sense of integrity who could be interpreted as a symbol of Prince Hal's youth. By the termination of the war, King Henry stands alone, surrounded only by those whom duty keeps at a distance. Evading the prospect of a barren finale, Shakespeare alleviates the tension by concluding with Henry's playful courting of the French princess.

Director Davis McCallum's production of Henry V, staged at the Dowling Studio in the Guthrie Theater, emphasizes the central position of the king by casting the remainder of the actors as a "chorus," each of whom plays multiple roles. While this encourages the audience to empathize with Henry, it stimulates an emotional detachment from the other characters. Thus Bardolph (played by Andy Grotelueschen) is hanged for looting, but the same actor can subsequently be recognized on stage as York (soon to die heroically in battle) and Orleans (a French nobleman who also died at Agincourt). Fortunately, these events were not enacted on stage--a trilogy of deaths by the same actor that would have transformed the production into a comedy.

Yet the effect of the Acting Company as a chorus is irresistibly positive. The boy (Kelley Curran) dies in a French raid on the English camp, but the actress is reincarnated in the final scene as Katharine, the French princess courted by Henry. Particularly inspired is the earlier scene where Katharine begins to learn English by reciting body parts, using a group of soldiers, posed tranquil as furniture, as props. When the scene winds down, the princess's eye contact with one of these soldiers draws her world closer to that of the war--the same effect Branagh achieved in his movie when a playful Emma Thompson happened upon her stern father at this point. All characters but King Henry are stewed together as a realm of subjects, but that kingdom remains, as a whole, reassuringly permanent.

The backdrop of the set is a gentle parabola of planks, sliding doors, and a rolling ladder, opening on a space populated by a single, mobile table in harmony with the players. The costumes reflect the simplicity of the stage, tending toward a drab uniformity of color, yet with a hint of individuality in their permutations of zippers and piping. In the Dowling Studio, the cumulative effect is a relaxed, intimate environment in which Henry remains the focus through forceful speech and motion.

As the king, Matthew Amendt radiates the aura of a genuine, youthful monarch, expressing confidence in his destiny through positive dialogue and physical exuberance, but also a tenuous, probing introspection when alone. He is comfortable with Shakespearean verse while striding assuredly among his subjects or athletically up a ladder, commanding by enthusiasm as well as judgment. In the sense that the world at large is poured into the title role, Henry is a challenging precursor to later tragic heroes such as Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth, and Matthew Amendt proves equal to the task.

This articulation of Henry V tends toward the modern, but with the same emphasis on narrative and dialogue that Shakespeare originally envisioned. The blood-and-guts realism of a movie like Branagh's makes a strong impact, but modern stage productions often downplay emotional effects, prodding the audience toward reflection. A star cluster and Sarah Siddons' garter to Davis McCallum and the Acting Company, for an intelligent production that is faithful to Shakespeare while exploiting the possibilities inherent in modern theater.