Sometimes it’s enough for a play to be presented as a story without metaphors. That appears to be the ambition of Theatre in the Round’s ensemble staging of “King Henry V” that opened last weekend in Minneapolis.
In our time, Shakespeare’s epic about England’s medieval warrior king has often taken on the trappings of somewhere else. Versions have been set in Vietnam and, more recently, in Iraq. Of the two great film versions, the one by Laurence Olivier made during the struggles of World War II emphasized British triumph against overwhelming odds, while the one made by Kenneth Branagh in the late 1980s seemed to emphasize the horrors and waste of war.
TRP’s version, which was adapted and directed by Craig Johnson, attempts only to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. And on that level, it works pretty well.
Johnson’s adaptation, with its nips and tucks and fast-moving staging, has reduced the performance time to two 70-minute acts from what is often a three-hour experience. He’s also replaced Shakespeare’s narrator with the story-theater technique of splitting narration between members of the ensemble before they step into their roles.
The performance takes place across a nearly bare arena that has been painted by set designer Kathy Pepmiller to depict a map of medieval England and France. The battle sequences, always a trick, are very convincing – often consisting of hoards of warriors shouting as they rush toward an unseen enemy offstage. The battle of Harfleur is particularly effective, with Henry bathed in smoke as he ascends a siege ladder held by his men while he utters those well-known words, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends… .”Fundamentally, however, it is Ian Miller’s starless performance as Henry that gives this production its tone. Miller, whose work I’ve seen in other productions, is a good actor. But a big Shakespearean hero is beyond him. He settles instead on depicting a warrior king who is more on the order of U.S. Grant or Dwight Eisenhower – a thoroughly successful, though bland-seeming leader of men who does what’s necessary to get the job done.
So his big speech to his men before the triumph at Agincourt (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) isn’t the stem-winder that many expect. It’s only in the last scenes, where he woos the deliciously dithered French princess (Valerie Rigsbee) that we see the kind of winning performance that Miller is capable of giving.
In the end, we come away appreciating the heroic tableaus, but remembering the lighter scenes with the bragging Frenchmen, the rapscallion soldiers, the English-fracturing French ladies and some of the elegiac narratives. Particularly effective are David Tufford as Pistol, a tall, clumsy camp-follower, and Andy Babinski as Fluellen, the Welsh officer who is a mixture of charming ethnic caricature and cold-blooded battlefield killer. And at play’s end, Muriel J. Bonertz completes the narration with the sad view of the future.
Henry V was a tremendous warrior, but the fruits of his victories were fleeting. In a different production that could be a contemporary metaphor.
BY DAVID HAWLEY
Special to the Pioneer Press