As lean as the rough-hewn timbers that populate its set, Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry V is more intimate than you might expect from a play set mostly in the hell of combat. It’s quietly dominated by the thoughtful performance of Zach Appelman as the young king. We watch the cruel necessity of his transformation to absolute monarch, losing friends to betrayal and waging the dirty business of war as he seeks to join England and France. This is a Henry V painfully rooted in psychological truth, and it works brilliantly.
Director Robert Richmond wisely sets this production as straight-up Elizabethean, free from flashy thematic restaging into some other era. That’s a relief to see, placing the text properly front and center. As our captive guide the Chorus (a wonderfully melancholy Richard Sheridan Willis) begins to tell the king’s tale, we become his complicit contemporaries as he attempts to impart some wisdom to his misguided country. The message of Shakespeare’s play? The road to being king isn’t easy, being a subject is worse, and the results of war are always inconclusive.
Appelman delivers familiar speeches anew with an extraordinary intimacy (most notably the famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” pitch-perfect as an exhortation from a leader who will always go over the top first), and the small cast transforms themselves with lightning efficiency through multiple characters and locations. It’s all very trim and tight, showcasing the text with refreshing clarity. This brings forward not only the psychological tension of Henry’s journey, but also releases the play’s humor, as with the sparring duets of Andrew Schwartz’s Dauphin and Pomme Koch’s Constable, or Cameron Pow’s Fluellen and Chris Genebach’s MacMorris. Henry V features one of the funniest and sweetest courtship scenes ever written, as “plain soldier” Henry woes elegant Katherine (Katie duBuys, who also sympathetically doubles as the Boy), and it might just be the best I’ve ever seen performed – the perfect reward.
Because the essence of the play is so clearly presented, any flourishes seemed a bit extraneous to me. Though the production design overall is beautiful (especially the dappled lighting design of Andrew F. Griffin), the simple vocality is so striking here it doesn’t need underlying sound at every major moment, especially in a play where the Chorus is asking the audience to work their imaginations. But that’s really a compliment: the actors’ intentions are so well delivered this could be performed in a black box and still be as effective. Movement is also kept simple, highlighted with select moments – Henry galloping astride his horse in slow motion took my breath away.
Frankly, fate in Henry V is a cruel, heartless bitch, and its sting still deeply resonated with the soldier who joined me in watching this production. That hangman’s noose you see at the very beginning isn’t symbolic – it will be used repeatedly, and death will be shockingly real. You might cry. You should.
Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry V runs through March 3. Tickets priced from $30-68. Located at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC 20003. Closest Metro stop: Capitol South (Orange/Blue lines). For more information call 202.544.7077.