My wife and I are season ticket holders to the Shakespeare Theatre downtown and yesterday we saw their production of Henry V. It was rainy and dreary outside and I was tired. I had no desire to sit for three hours watching a play. I would have preferred to take a nap. I actually felt very sleepy and closed my eyes for a few minutes about ten minutes in. When I opened them I felt refreshed and it was just about that time that I started getting in the flow of the play, i.e. when the rhythms of the Shakespearian language start to become understandable. My wife and I both agree that in nearly all the Shakespeare we see it takes a few minutes of listening to the Shakespeare’s Elizabethan cadences before we start to get it. After that, if the production and the acting are any good, we’re home free.
And boy was this one good. The title of this post is taken from the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech Henry gives to his men before their decisive battle with the French:
Michael Hayden plays Henry and he is very nearly perfect in the role. The historical events of the play concern the English victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 in which heavily outnumbered English, spurred on by Henry’s speech, soundly defeated the French and Henry has himself declared successor to the French crown. But the play is really about the maturity of Henry into a great man and leader. The former Prince Hal, a frivolous playboy, gives up his former ways upon becoming king and learns the lessons and burdens of leadership. The speech is rousing not simply for its inspiring words but because we in the audience realize that Henry has now achieved true greatness. Hayden does a wonderful job showing us this growth, aided by the simple production that lets Shakespeare do the talking. I kept thinking all the way through (until the final scene) how well-structured the play was. Each scene builds upon the last, telling the historical story while at the same time showing the maturity of Henry, the difficult decisions he must make, the way he handles power. I had associations flashing through my head to other historical and theatrical events all the way through the play. Considering the changes that come over Henry once he becomes king I thought of the changes that are said to have come over Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) when he learned that Caesar was dead and had chosen Octavian as his successor. Two scenes put me in mind of Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies. The first, when three former associates attempt to betray him, he hugs the one who he was closest with, and we know he will die: “I will weep for thee / For this revolt of thine methinks is like / Another fall of man”. It reminded me of the scene on II when Michael learns of Fredo’s betrayal and kisses him: “You broke my heart Fredo. You broke my heart.” Later, when Henry’s old drinking buddy Bardolph (played by the marvelous Floyd King, who by now must be considered a Washington D.C. institution) has been caught robbing a church, Henry has him brought before him. Bardolph, thinking his old friend will show leniency, greets him happily, “My King!” Realizing upon Henry’s silence the gravity of the situation, he utters with a catch in his voice “My Hal”, a plea to Henry to remember the good old days. It does him no good and Henry orders his execution. This reminded me of the scene in part one of The Godfather when Tesio, having betrayed Michael, stops and turns to Tom Hagen as he is being led off to his own execution: “Can you get me off the hook Tom? For old time’s sake?” Henry sobs over Bardolph’s dead body once everyone leaves and we realize with a shudder the burdens and sacrifices of a leader. Finally, the night before the big battle reminded me of Washington with his troops the night before the Delaware crossing, when all seemed lost. A play that can conjure up so many profound historical and theatrical situations is doing something right. In Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry V, nearly all is right.
Only one part of the play seemed wrong, and that is Act V consisting mostly of Henry’s wooing of Katharine, the daughter of the French King. Historically it points out the symbolic and literal union of England and France (which would be very short-lived) but as part of the play it seems out of place, a purely comic act after such a dramatic battle. It dissipates some of the energy from the play, which would better have ended at the end of Act IV, after the final battle. But this is a quibble. This Henry V is not to be missed.
The play runs through April 10 so you still have time to see it.