by William Shakespeare
directed by Ron Daniels
at the A.R..T
through March 13
Ron Daniels' Henry V is Shakespeare for the nineties--slick, sexy, and kicked into overdrive by the exhilarating energy of Bill Camp's Henry. The stage seems to throb with the visual intensity of its blood-red set. The theater pulses with the rhythms of the language and the power-lust of the characters.
The young king Henry, vaulted to power at the death of his father, must prove his legitimacy as a king by leading his hopelessly inferior army against haughty France. The play climaxes at the Battle of Agincourt, where 6,000 Englishmen must fight or die against an army of 30,000 French.
In Daniels' production, the English are characterized as American GI's--tough and tenacious, but also far from home and secretly fearful for their survival. The French, on the other hand, are a country of fops, hopelessly out of touch in their ridiculous platform shoes, silly looking jumpsuits, and permed hair. Daniels seems to conclude, as do the history books, that this vanity and remoteness on the part of the French court resulted in their downfall despite their vast wealth and military superiority.
Bill Camp's Henry is the epicenter of the play, inspiring and occasionally frightening the other characters with his blood-lust and terrible ambition. In Camp's interpretation, Henry gains not only legitimacy through the French campaign, but also humanity. Henry's tears at the bodies of the fallen, and bashfulness in the presence of his new wife, reveal emotions previously hidden under his role of warrior-king.
Amidst the intensity of Camp's performance, some of the minor characters are obscured. The traitorous trio of Cambridge (Michael Janes), Scroop (Randall Jaynes) and Grey (James Framer) seem particularly flimsy. For the most part, supporting performances are strong. The clown Pistol (Ben Halley) and the wimp Fluellen (Thomas Derrah) are able to grab the audience's attention. Lenore Chaix, as Princess Katherine of France, is as voluptuous, coy and well, French, as any king could hope to win.
Apart from the riveting power of the cast, this production has visual intensity. The sets themselves are strikingly stylized, from the cavernous English war-chamber to the surreal floating windows of the French court and the palisade of Calais with its cutaway wall. Daniels uses this backdrop to construct tableaux with his characters, freezing the action on the stage in moments of startling clarity. The image of Henry kneeling among the body bags of slain men, or of the two kings sitting in opposite thrones with their men grouped behind them like chesspieces, linger in the mind's eye like the brief illuminations of a strobe light.
Despite its innovative aspects, the production never seems gimmicky or contrived, nor does it obscure Shakespeare's theme of blind ambition vs. mere blindness. Henry V is an important addition to the repertoire of the A.R.T., it deftly showcases their skill and prominence