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Contrary to standard academic conditioning, performing Shakespeare is far from formulaic. The vitality of the text craves originality and new approach, which sadly, far too many theatre-makers seem timid to take on. UNC School of the Arts’ satirical production of King Henry V demolishes tiresome theatrical norms, and restores Shakespeare back to his original intent.
Admittedly, upon walking into the aesthetically generous Freedman Theatre and finding only an exposed bare stage, disappointment was inevitable. The 13 metal folding chairs, each with its own music stand, arranged crescent-shaped downstage were not much help in providing optimism. As the band of actors began to take their respective seats, all dressed quite pedestrian (jeans, book bags, jackets, and water bottles) and scripts in hand, the audience braced themselves for what was sure to be a glorified concert reading at best.
Subjectivism aside, it is a disservice to anyone nursing past nightmares of Shakespearean classroom readings, grappling to understand the text, or even worse, to be initially introduced to the performance of Shakespeare, to then only be subjected to an unimagined production of Henry V. If nothing else, the play – possibly the entirety of Shakespeare’s collection – deserves movement on foot.
However, with subtlety, the production began to reveal there is much more than what meets the eye. The actors, gender-blindly casted, gradually became less dependent upon their scripts. Blocking started to take shape as they moved their stands and chairs around the stage, characters sprang up from the audience, climbed over seats, and played down the aisles. Even the mid-stage curtain receded to reveal large towering set pieces. There were costumes, wigs, and sword fights. Videos were projected onto the stage, and suddenly, there was no longer a trace of the minimal concert beginning. Live theatre, innovative and exciting, unfolded around the audience in all directions.
Unquestionably one of Shakespeare’s more testosterone-driven plays, Henry V follows the recently crowned King, determined to prove his right to reign over the English and French. As the result of receiving a dubious and challenging gift from the French Dauphin, he responds with preparations to invade France. As King Henry is met with harsh resistance and treachery, he must harness the leadership to inspire his forces. He delivers a patriotic speech, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” which rallies everyone for combat. The English succeed in winning several battles, and eventually France surrenders. King Henry goes on to marry the princess of France, therefore uniting the two lands and bringing peace for the span of his life.
It is nearly impossible to single out specific performances, because collectively the hefty cast was superb. When watching these young students, with their profound talent and commitment to their craft, it was apparent that with the likes of them, the future of theatre, should never be questioned.
That said, Lorenzo Roberts as King Henry was powerful and rousing. The role requires humility. Each time Roberts delivered his commanding lines, he was also able to covey to the audience his effort to convince himself as well. Devinron Ready as the Duke of Exeter had a strong presence on the stage, which matched his equally stirring voice. It was a joy to listen to his delivery of text. Providing wonderful comedic relief was Joe Cooley as the hot-tempered Welsh Captain Fluellen, as well as Will Bednar as the flamboyant Louis the Dauphin. Both actors broke the war-torn tension and commanded the stage with their characterizations.
Guest director Stephen Brown-Fried is to be applauded for executing such a refreshing take on the Shakespearean play. The primary plight of performing Shakespeare for modern audiences is the question of accessibility. Here, with this current depiction, as the production slowly evolved into itself, the audience was able to connect with each of the characters organically. Brown-Fried also employed satire and creative staging to keep all the viewers on their toes. With nuances such as deconstructing music stands into swords and shields, incorporating FaceTime for the characters to communicate with cell phones and projection screens, and juxtaposing contemporary attire with fanciful costumes and wigs, Shakespeare was brought into the 21st century.
To that point, the achievements of costume designer Sarah Gray and wig and makeup designer Jill Elaina Haley were especially noteworthy. These two artists were able to construct a whole world, rich with detail and with vibrant personalities, in a way not commonly experienced with Shakespeare.
In UNC School of the Arts’ King Henry V, nothing was predictable, yet everything made perfect sense. Although the show did run roughly three-and-a-half hours with intermission, every moment was packed with excitement.
Most importantly, this show was what not only Shakespeare but all theatre should innately be: fearless.
Henry V continues through Sunday, February 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.