Highly Recommended **** Shakespeare’s Henry V begins with the newly crowned King of England, having said goodbye to his old friend Falstaff, and with him the “wildness” of his youth, laying claim to the French crown. One of Shakespeare’s best-known histories, it culminates with the famous battle of Agincourt, one of the landmark battles of the Hundred Years’ War, in which a heavily outnumbered English army defeated the French on St. Crispin’s Day, 1415.
Could such a momentous historical battle be captured on the stage? At the beginning of the play, the chorus raises this question explicitly, asking whether “this cockpit” (the playhouse) could possibly “hold the vasty fields of France?” And indeed, the massive scale of the battles depicted must pose a major challenge to any contemporary production—met admirably here by a cinematic set design and choreography capable of making you jump in your seat.
The opening also hints at the “theatrical” capabilities that the military campaign will require from its leader. One of the pleasures of being its audience is to hear in their original context so many of the now-familiar phrases—“Once more unto the breach!” “We happy few, we band of brothers!”—that continue to crop up in films and books about war today. Played energetically by Harry Judge, the young king delivers these exhortations passionately to his troops, and later fights valiantly by their side. At the same time, he never loses sight of the importance of such “theatrical” rhetoric for him to achieve his political ambitions.
Henry has sometimes been presented as manipulative or deceitful; here he is mostly “appealing and attractive,” as director Christopher Luscombe puts it in the program, “a character whom the audience wants to spend an evening with.” I sometimes wished we had seen a more of the dark side of the man who is led into war not just by his ambition to unite his kingdom but also by a silly jest, involving a tennis ball, sent over by the Dauphine (played with hilarious bluster by Samuel Taylor), his competitor for the French throne. That the world is not, in fact, a stage is the somber truth that shadows the ambitious Henry, leading occasionally to moments of melancholy as he considers the tens of thousands of dead in the wake of his military campaign. To convince his undermanned Army to conquer their fears Henry may need to employ the tools of a great actor, but one wonders sometimes whether he has fallen pray to his own propaganda and forgotten the very untheatrical consequences of his decisions.
The play, though, is anything but somber; and despite being over two hours it will not bore or confuse you as some of the Histories can. We do enjoy spending our evening with Henry—indeed by the end of this rousing production we might even be itching to join him on the battlefield!
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Tickets: $48-$78; 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com
Discounted parking is available
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