I had the pleasure of seeing a sold-out, standing room only performance of Henry V at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre in Washington, DC on Friday, Feb. 1. Quite simply, it was an exhilarating performance. Zach Appleman is terrific as the invading Henry V, exhibiting magnetic star power and tremendous gravitas. For someone whose Shakespeare theatre experiences mostly consist of the lights on, crowd contact style of Staunton's American Shakespeare Center, the darkened theater and heavily produced style of the Folger took a little adjusting for me. However, a play like Henry V is at its best with great production and the Folger supplies plenty of set pieces, explosions, and music to transport you to the fields of France.
Henry V is arguably England's greatest hero (though he is quite the Machiavellian Prince). While many centuries have passed since his miraculous conquest of France, his legend has 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.
While most theatre productions of Shakespeare's works are far superior to filmed versions, it's rare that a theatre performance of Henry V can match the intensity of the Branagh and Olivier classics. Robert Richmond's Folger Henry V can claim to do just that. The performances were riveting and the crowd was enthralled.
Apart from Appleman's star making turn in the title role, ASC veteran James Keegan is grand as the blustery Pistol. Keegan takes a great deal of punishment in this role, not just from the leeks, but from hoisting other players, and ducking low hanging wooden planks. Jessica Witchger's fiddling is an amazing accompaniment to the performance. Katie deBuys does a wonderful job in double duty as the boy/Princess Kate. Richard Sheridan Willis is another standout in the often overlooked but vitally important role of Chorus/Montjoy.
Special thanks goes out to Deborah J. Leslie, head of cataloging at the Folger Library for giving us a grand tour of the Library and hooking us up with tickets and providing much needed guidance and company while we were in DC.
While I missed the audience interaction and crowd watching at the ASC, this production was just right for Shakespeare's celebrated hero play and is a performance I will never forget. I would urge anyone with a love for Shakespeare to get to DC as soon as possible to see this production.