Monday, September 26, 2011

Henry V

Gregory Jon Phelps as Henry V inHenry V. Photo by Michael Bailey.
Henry V is arguably England's greatest hero. While many centuries have passed since his miraculous, victorious campaigns in France, his story and legend has only grown thanks to William Shakespeare's Henriad, and the lesser known plays Sir John Oldcastle and The Famous Victories of Henry V. Modern generations have come to know the story not only through the works of Shakespeare but through two film versions, one a patriotic homage during the dog days of World War II by Sir Laurence Olivier and the other; a more gritty but equally impressive version by Kenneth Branagh. Another, lesser-known version for the small screen, featuring a tremendous performance by Robert Hardy as part of the BBC's An Age of Kings should also be consulted.

The films have been a double-edged swords for theatre productions, as it's impossible to recreate their grandeur and majestic soundtracks, especially during Henry's rousing speeches. The version that you will see at the Blackfriars, directed by Ralph Alan Cohen, seems to be a bit more understated and bring some of the supporting characters more to the forefront than the film versions, which are dominated by Henry.

Greg Phelps, fresh from playing Henry VI, takes on the role of Henry VI's father and the two characters could hardly be any less similar. I imagine it might be tough for audiences who've seen Phelps' turn as VI to forget that and completely buy into his character as Henry V, but I think he does a great job with the transition. I don't know if this is a role actors relish playing because of the heightened expectations of such a heroic character, but Phelps is pretty convincing in the role. It helps that Phelps is very good with self-deprecating humor on the stage and Henry the character definitely has that built in. His scenes with the common soldiers and with Miriam Donald's Princess Kate are among the best in the play. Of course the two big speeches are rousing, but seem to be played to be intentionally a bit more understated. Again, with these scenes in particular, it's hard to compare the stage versions to the rousing, neck-hair raising ones in Olivier and Branagh's film versions with their grand soundtracks. It definitely helps if the crowd will chant along to the "Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!" line (In the two performances I've seen one did, one didn't).

Benjamin Curns reprises his fantastic role as Pistol from 2H4 and delivers in spades. Curns once again shows he's the most versatile performer in the troupe-be it comedy, tragedy, or villainy Curns always delivers the goods. Also always delivering the goods is Allison Glenzer who once again plays Mistress Quickly to the hilt, and her turn as Princess Kate's attendant Alice is not to be missed. One line will bring the house down every time.

Miriam Donald turns in two strong performances as Falstaff's Boy and as Princess Kate. Kate is a very tough role as the lines are 95% in French, and Donald tackles it perfectly.

James Keegan, who never misses a beat, nearly steals the show as Fluellen. His Welsh accent will cause you to chuckle nearly everytime (as will Rene Thornton's Captain Jamy's brogue). His leek scene with Curns is probably the most memorable in the entire play.

Chris Johnston turns in one of his classic comedic performances as the fortune defiled Bardolph and one of his classic arrogant French performances as Orleans. Intern Zachary Brown is very impressive as the love spurned Nym. The strong role of Exeter (made even stronger than Shakespeare perhaps intended by Brian Blessed in Branagh's film version) is played very well by John Basiulis.

The closest character to a foil for Harry is the Dauphin. Patrick Midgley takes on this important role and performs it well with the typical French braggadociousness. Midgley ensurse that the Dauphin's love of his horse comes shining through. His scenes with Orleans and Daniel Burrows' Lord Constable are great, especially considering they hold him in mild contempt. This Dauphin Louis is not to be confused with John Harrell's Dauphin Charles of 1H6, as Louis was Charle's brother who predeceased him. Midgley is also impressive as Captain MacMorris (with an Irish brogue) and Michael Williams, a soldier who unwittingly challenges King Harry.

John Harrell is excellent as the somewhat campy Chorus (backed capably by Miriam Donald). He also makes a couple of brief appearances as Westmoreland and John Bates.

This production brings to a close the 1st leg of the ASC's The Histories: The Rise and Fall of Kings. I had the fortune of seeing all but Richard II, and I look forward to the finale with Richard III during the Actors Renaissance Season.