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A CurtainUp Phildelphia Review
Director Aaron Cromie must have realized when he first thought about devising this version, how conveniently the role of the chorus, a narrator role, works perfectly for a teacher in a classroom. Sam Sherburn, as the teacher, fills in the gaps and takes shortcuts to the juicy parts, just as Shakespeare intended, and he keeps things moving. It's the perfect setup and Cromie has used it well.
Students straggle in to the very believable classroom designed by Dirk Durossett, get their roles, and the play within a play commences. Henry (Akeem Davis) colludes with the Archbishop of Canterbury to justify waging war on France. He is searching for credible grounds for an invasion, partly for reasons that he states. But what he really needs is a common enemy, something big to distract and unite the factions at home that are gathering against him.
In the classroom, Lizzie Spellman as a student playing the Archbishop of Canterbury, presents overhead projections at breakneck speed — a muddle of intricate genealogy and cute sketches of key people. Got it, class?
Putting forward a deliberately convoluted explanation in the service of casuistry, the archbishop introduces and then dismisses Salic law. This law decreed that a royal female line of descent is illegal. Henry needs to get around it, and Canterbury shows him how by pointing out that no less than three French kings have already defied the law. So why not Henry? Henry knows it's shady and his claim to the French throne is shaky, but he needs a passable justification. He feels guilty since his father stole the English throne and killed the deposed king. The archbishop is all for mounting an English attack on France and will help pay for it with church properties. Convinced this scheme can work, Henry decides to go forward, exclaiming, "No king of England if not king of France."
King Henry's story started in Henry IV Part I and continued in Part 2 when Hal, a dissolute youth became king. In Henry V he grows into his kingship.
In a comic seedy tavern scene, students playing rascals and drunkards reveal a bit of the past, disclosing how Henry, as Prince Hal, grew up with the common touch. (In roguish roles are Johnny Smith, Richard Chan, Jenna Kuerzi, and Lizzie Spellman.) Henry used to be a fun guy, hanging out in the tavern with barmaids and petty thieves and an enormously entertaining and naughty knight, Falstaff. But he abandoned that knight in Henry IV Part 2. Talk about unfriending, Falstaff may be dying of a broken heart. And now Henry will turn his back on his old drinking pal, Bardolph, with whom he used to steal stuff when he was young. As a good king, Henry must cleave consistently to law, so his old friend must be executed for stealing from a church. Henry wants to be the ideal hero-king. But how glowing and heroic is he? The question invites some consideration: There's the play, there's the man, and there's the spin.
Battles will be fought in the classroom. Harfleur and Agincourt are the two big English victories. At some points students become Frenchmen in camp on the eve of battle. They're confident that they'll decimate the English. Jahzeer Terrell's Governor of Harfleur is quite touching. Johnny Smith's Dauphin is an entertaining slacker, and I think we'll see more of these young actors in the future.
On the eve of St. Crispin's Day, the frivolous French are contrasted with the somber English camp, whose occupants know they're outnumbered and wish they weren't there. Henry enters in disguise and speaks with them. "A little touch of Henry in the night." Davis delivers a grounded performance as Henry, once again proving his acting mettle. Soldiers speak their minds freely about the French campaign. Henry knows the war isn't truly justified. But he gives his word to a soldier, Williams (Smith) who has confronted him, not knowing he is the king. Henry declares that after the battle he will answer Williams' charges in personal combat. (Later, however, he'll go back on his word and try to pay him off.)
Jump ahead to the wonderful Band of Brothers speech, the brave and patriotic tear-jerker, and centerpiece of this play. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." In Philly Shakespeare's production Akeem Davis absolutely nails it. It's a knockout. He's a natural.
The English army is hopelessly outnumbered, and Henry is bucking them up, a dashing king leading his brothers with courage against a superior force. However, let's not take the speech at face value. Henry is a strategist who knows how to take the psychological approach: He depends on the loyalty of the nobles and the lower orders. They're his "brothers" not just his subjects. There's irony behind this demonstration of caring. The intimation that this could be "all about Henry" imbues the play with layered drama.
So, let's speculate. After the battle, will the soldiers be invited to stop by the royal residence for a flagon of brewski and a gabfest with their pal, the king? I don't think so. It looks like the band of brothers can just forget about it.
And then there's the lovely Katharine of France (played by Ama Bollinger, who was the enigmatic Anna K in FringeArts this year). Katharine asks her maid, performed by expressive Ife Foy, to teach her some words in English, since the French have fallen to the English and the handwriting is on the wall. These actors turn out a charming performance of this well-known scene. It gives one pause: Maybe Henry actually did fall in love with Katharine at first sight. But ultimately, everyone knows that she's the political prize. Henry needs a French queen to settle matters of state.
A small historical note: The cream of French nobility fell on the field of Agincourt. Although Shakespeare doesn't go into it in Henry V, it was not the chivalric flower of English knighthood on the field who won the day. It was yeomen, the un-armored longbowmen, the English archers, who played the key role. Commoners saved the knights' noble asses. This marked the raggedy end of the already languishing feudal chivalric system in England. The legacy of the English victory at Agincourt in 1415 was fairly short-lived. In 1429, under the influence of the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, the English were -mostly- swept from France. Although in 1431 the baby Henry VI of England was crowned King of France in Notre Dame by a faction of remaining English, the French king, Charles VII actually retained the throne. It was all over for the English in France.
As a long-time teacher of theater and acting, I recommend this fine show to teachers. If a class trip is not in the cards, a suggestion that students arrange to see it on their own or with their families might be in order. This show, where actors play students who take on multiple roles, may not be super easy for newbies to negotiate. So it really helps to read the literature in the program first to get oriented and be prepared to really enjoy it. Perhaps the program can be accessed online.
Although it's about prep school students taking on the challenge of performing Shakespeare's play, this show is in no way limited to student audiences. With a fanciful frame that complicates things even as it simplifies them, with no customary Elizabethan costumes or staging, and a fun, deceptively slap dash approach, this is one of the liveliest and most enjoyableHenry V performances I've seen.