A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
King Henry V

As a Shakespeare play lends itself to a variety of interpretations, why not an anti-heroic Henry V?  This modern dress production at the National Theatre by new artistic director Nicholas Hytner emphasizes the seamy side of war as found in the text, although Henry’s “star of England” quality seems lacking here when he is cut down to size. Adrian Lester’s Henry goes from soft-spoken and dubious of the arcane reasons for going to war (some will see a parallel) to enraged shouting of the “once more into the breach” passage, maybe with the idea that he must anger his unimpressed soldiers  to make them fight.

The many imaginative and effective touches in this updated version include a television crew on hand in the battle scenes. A CNN-type large-screen closeup of Henry warning the citizens of Harfleur has subtitles in French, as it is watched by the French king. A tape played on the same screen shows Falstaff playacting the king in the tavern scene from “Henry IV Part 1,” a reminder of Henry’s earlier wild days.  The battles are impressively staged, although it is jarring to see Henry himself shoot his old follower Nym in the head instead of giving the order for his death for church robbing.  With the soldiers and Henry wearing the battle dress of the Iraq war seen daily on television, the play’s relevancy hits home.

To sound colloquial, the spoken verse too often  sacrifices rhythm, so that the scenes in prose come off best.  The three rogue soldiers, Pistol (Jude Akuwudike) Nym (Robert Horwell) and Bardolph (David Kennedy) convincingly present the seamy side of war, and Cecilia Noble as Mistress Quickly combines sympathy with unintentional comic interpolations as she reports the sad news of Falstaff’s death.  Likewise, in another prose scene, Mr. Lester is at his best in wooing the disdainful French Princess Catherine (Felicite du Jeu).  Chorus and two of the French characters give the verse its due, and the rhythm and clarity of their speeches make them a pleasure to hear – cardiganed Penny Downie as Chorus, Rohan Siva as Montjoy, the French Herald, and William Gaunt as the Duke of Burgundy, with a moving lament about the state of the war-torn French landscape and its people.

While Mr. Hytner demonstrates how to approach a modern dress “Henry V,” the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park illustrates the pitfalls.  In the title role, Liev Schreiber again reveals his talent at interpreting the Bard and his understanding of the verse and how it should be spoken. This portrayal adds to his impressive gallery, which includes Hamlet, Iachimo, and  Iago.  However, as directed by Mark Wing-Davey, the production is overladen with gimmicks.  The opening scene, also in business suits like the London production, uses a metal ladder for the corporate table, with accompanying charts and maps to explain convoluted laws of succession as justification for going to war. When the French officers brag about their horses, which Shakespeare describes, Chorus having asked us to “think… that you see them,” Mr. Wing-Davey, not trusting our imaginations, presents bare-chested, snorting young men imitating steeds.  Evidently equating nudity with modern times, the director also places the French courtiers around a swimming pool, and the French princess in a shower, naked.  Mark Wendland’s set incorporates gilt chairs, piles of old newspapers, and a metal catwalk, while Gabriel Berry’s costumes are a hodgepodge of periods.