From High Point to Asheville, with Salisbury and Belmont in between, Henry V has proven to be the most widely performed of Shakespeare’s history plays in recent years, testifying to the continuing influence of the 1989 film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. But until the opening of the current Shakespeare Carolina production at Spirit Square, the concluding play in the Bard’s Henriad had not been staged in Charlotte during the new millennium. While the script may be highly regarded by directors in the western half of our state, local theatergoers may not be quite so enthused. It might be exaggerating to say that the opening night audience at Duke Energy Theater outnumbered the players onstage.
It’s a very humble stage, under Tony Wright’s finely calculated direction, with a drab set design by Wright that seems to be identical to the one he used for Julius Caesar a year ago. The difference here is how much more the barebones simplicity of the stage dovetails with the style of the script. In his lighting design, Wright shrinks the stage even smaller as the action begins, narrowing our focus to the one-woman Chorus who is our narrator. She famously calls upon “a Muse of fire” to create “a kingdom for a stage” that the great princes and King Henry can shine upon, but she quickly apologizes for the “unworthy scaffold” that must satisfy us instead. To make up for the “cockpit” that must substitute for the fields of France, Chorus calls upon us to use our imaginations. Altogether, the opening was a vivid reminder of the opening sequence of the 1944 Laurence Olivier film, in which an Elizabethan theater slowly dissolves into Henry’s kingdom.
Our imaginations were soon afterwards aided by Wright’s costume designs, positively resplendent compared with the set. We were also truly fortunate to have ShakesCar stalwart Katie Bearden as Chorus guiding us across the centuries, the warring countries, and the English Channel between several of the scenes, occasionally casting off the other roles she plays, a Scottish captain and Queen Isabel of France, to resume her narrative. While reminding us that the artifice in this 145-minute epic (plus 15-minute intermission) is entirely Bearden’s domain, there are other colorful performances to savor.
Wright steps out of his director’s chair to handle a couple of dyspeptic roles, England’s traitorous Earl of Cambridge and the contemptuous Constable of France. Kevin Aoussou beautifully blended conceit and cowardice as France’s Dauphin, learning to regret the contemptuous jest he levels at the English crown. Emmanuel Barbe, in a role tailored admirably to his accent and bearing, subtly warmed to Henry as Montjoy, the French emissary. Russell Rowe, who nearly gargled delivering the Scottish brogue of Captain Fluellen, was everything you would want in a loyal army officer.
These are the worthiest of the men who support and oppose the king, though I confess a soft spot for Don McManus’ portrait of the pocked and rascally Bardolph, the best remains of the comical role Falstaff plays in previous installments of the tetralogy. Prince Hal has completely reformed and matured when we meet him as King Henry here, having previously renounced the rotund knight. Yet Ted Patterson’s performance in the title role confused me at first, neither carrying over the mischievous joie de vivre of the Prince’s salad days nor arriving at the serenity and confidence of a model Christian king. Beginning with Henry’s opening tennis ball scene, Patterson often roared throughout the evening, creating an unforeseen kinship with the ruler of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, a barbarian I beheld earlier this year in Brooklyn, and a suspected influence on Shakespeare. Listen to Henry on the battlefields of France and you have to admit that there are some shockingly barbaric vaunts mixed in with his famed exhortations on behalf of God, England, and St. George.
Patterson’s confidence and the regality of his bearing seemed to grow gradually upon him on opening night, another pleasing nuance, but I still hungered for an episode in which he wasn’t crafty or bellicose. This human element arrives late when King Henry pays court to Princess Katherine, whom he eyes as the chief prize for his incredible victory at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt. We see Caryn Crye earlier in the evening as the Princess takes her lessons in rudimentary English, a scene calculated with supreme skill to make us fall in love with Katherine at first sight. Crye’s work in both of these scenes reassured us that Henry’s suit isn’t merely a cynical ploy, although the marriage does unite the thrones of England and France, putting them both in the triumphant king’s hands.
Henry V continues through Saturday, April 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.