What makes a perfect king? Shakespeare gave us his answer in Henry V. This play caps a four-part study of kingship in which we have portraits of three successive monarchs. In Richard II the playwright showed us a tragic and complex incompetent; in the two parts of Henry IV we have a competent king who cannot surmount the unlawful manner he secured the crown.
Henry V reigns both legally and exemplarily as Shakespeare presents him. We cannot condone today all that Henry does, nor approve the raw deal that Shakespeare gave the French. But we must try to remember at all times that Henry V represents what the Elizabethan English idolized. This is not too hard to do, for Shakespeare's skill is good enough to win us over, at least temporarily, to his own sympathies.
Nevertheless, the work is dramaturgically inferior to the other three plays. For one thing, it is, despite the gleaming hero at its center, less integrated. It is more a collection of scenes than it is one multifaceted play. Possibly Shakespeare was so carried away with his own ardor that he failed to lavish sufficient attention on the demands of structure.
Henry V is not so much a play about individuals, to be watched by an audience, as it is a kind of communal experience of revelry, hoopla, and even mystical ecstasy. A production almost becomes a corporate singing of a national poem instead of the national anthem--through which act the characters and the audience all brainwash each other. Three cheers for Harry the All-Britannican Boy!
In charge of the American Shakespeare Festival's current production is Douglas Seale, who directed the same play here at Sanders Theatre in 1956. Seale has done a generally admirable job, although, if memory serves, he has trimmed the text a bit more this time around. The Stratford running-time is two and a half hous. Since the Festival's Lear runs over three hours, why can't we have more of Henry?
What the text has above all else is color. Seale and his collaborators have captured it and supplemented it beautifully. Visually the show is a treat from start to finish. William Pitkin's set is simple: a semicircular runway articulated by six poles topped with crowns. This provides wide flexibility. A throne or priedieu can be wisked in or out, coats-of-arms and tapestries can be lowered, and flags, rope-ladders, or drapes can be run up the poles, not to mention pennons carried by supernumeraries.
Pitkin's costumes, especially the blues for the French court scenes, are utterly sumptuous. And again and again, Seale has grouped his players to form attractive pictures. I have only two complaints here. Herman Chessid's music is too squealy, his fanfares too insipid. And, at the very end of the play--a blaze of glory--it is ridiculous for light-designer Tharon Musser to give us a long slow fadeout instead of a quick blackout.
In the role of King Henry is James Ray, who played the same person at a younger age last summer in I Henry IV. Ray was better as Prince Hal, but I have seen many a worse Henry V. He looks right for Henry, but he does not (despite the use of a following spotlight) exhibit the dazzling aureole the part needs. His diction is clear and pleasant, but his voice is not always equal to the task given. Before the siege of Harfleur, his "Once more unto the breach" harangue does not ring as it ought; it is a clarinet instead of a clarion (but it is still an improvement over Laurence Harvey's weak effort with the Old Vic a few seasons ago).
Ray is at his best in the night scene where he wanders among his soldiers in disguise before the Battle of Agincourt. The solo aria on "ceremony" he delivers with perfect understanding and golden musicality.
Rex Everhart's Archbishop of Canterbury does not seem religious (properly so, perhaps), but he injects a wonderful bit of humor into his long sophistry over the "Salique law" by following each occurrence of the word "daughter" with a "hmm?" Lester Rawlins makes a rich and colorful figure of the valorous Welsh captain Fluellen.
Of the low-class comics, Nym and Bardolph are in the capable hands of Harold Cherry and John Milligan. But the strongest impression accrues from Philip Bosco's superlative Pistol, whose ruddy complexion and handlebar moustache suit well his resounding bravado and gusto. When he threatens Fluellen, "Base Trojan, thou shalt die," he whips out his sword with a flourish and fumblingly drops it on the ground; that is Pistol in a nutshell.
As Mistress Quickly (now Pistol's wife), Betty Bendyk is too genteel and her accent is faulty. She does better doubling later as the French queen. Of the other French, Patrick Hines is authentically wild and insane as King Charles, but Douglas Watson's Dauphin is confusingly drawn. Josef Sommer's Montjoy is unusually well-spoken. Princess Katharine (Patricia Peardon) and her attendant Alice (Anne Draper) are delightful in their famous lesson and wooing scenes.
If Seale's Henry V does not match Sir Laurence Olivier's, that's no disgrace; none could