Shakespeare Tavern and Atlanta Shakespeare Company are presenting “Henry V,” directed by Andrew Houchins and running through March 24.
The Tavern graced us last fall with outstanding productions of “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.” It comes as a surprise to learn that as pure theatre, they are greater dramas, especially “Part 1,” than “Henry V,” which is more well known. Perhaps that is because of the fairly recent film with Kenneth Branagh as Henry and some thrilling lines that Henry gets to recite.
And Shakespeare lovers will miss Falstaff, that brilliant, incomparable ne’er-do-well and tavern lover, whose wit is unsurpassed in the Bard’s canon. But we’re in a brave new world now, where Prince Hal (the younger Henry) has left his coltish, mischief-making ways far behind and has become a nonpareil king of almost frightening competence and charisma. He is played here by the remarkable Jonathan Horne, who also played the character in “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.”
The play is set in England in the 15th Century, and the political situation is tense. King Henry IV has died and the young Henry V is on the throne. Civil wars have recently disturbed the country; the people are restless. To gain the respect of the people and the court, Henry must disown his rambunctious adolescent past, when he used to hang out at the Boar’s Head Tavern with hoodlums and drunkards—and his great friend Falstaff, who dearly loved Prince Hal. We learn, incidentally, that Falstaff has died; and there is no visible regret on Henry’s part.
Henry needs political gravitas; and what better way to get it than to go to war with France? He finds willing allies in the Archbishop of Canterbury (Jeff McKerley) and the Bishop of Ely (Chloe Kay), who finance the French war to save the Church’s secular estates from royal confiscation. The Archbishop drones on forever about the Salic land laws, and Henry claims he has distant roots in the French royal family. “No king of England if not King of France,” Henry proclaims.
And when the Dauphin of France sends him an insulting message in response to Henry’s claims, it’s off to the wars. Henry is quite adept at getting former friends to fight for him: Bardolph (Vinnie Mascola), Pistol (Charlie T. Thomas), and Nym (Paul Hester), among others, prepare for war.
Before his fleet leaves, Henry learns of a conspiracy against his life; three traitors, including a former friend named Scroop (Alyson Swann), beg for their lives, but Henry orders them executed. One begins to see how the 18th Century scholar and critic William Hazlitt could write about Henry: “He was a hero; that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives…How then do we like him? We like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant.” One could argue a king must make these decisions; everything is debatable.
What is not debatable is that King Henry is capable of soaring oratory, most famously before the battle at Agincourt. But first, advancing in France, the English take Harfleur. Then Henry speaks to his greatly outnumbered forces, just before the battle of Agincourt: “From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered—we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.”
What is there to say? Henry’s men would walk off a cliff for him after this; and audiences pay tickets to hear these lines spoken well; and not to worry—we have Mr. Horne to do the honors. More about him shortly. I cannot supply any more of the plot except the charming Act V, when King Henry woos Princess Katherine (Chloe Kay). Here Shakespeare has Henry getting a French lesson while convincing the princess and her lady-in-waiting (Natalie Karp) that the only sensible thing for her to do is marry him: “But in loving me you should love the friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it, I will have it all mine. And Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.” Who could dispute this logic? Certainly not Katherine.
“Henry V” has an extremely large and gifted cast; all their names are in the program; I cannot list them here. (Oh, thanks to Olivia Dawson for an interesting Chorus, with a twinkle in her eye.) And Queen Isabel of France (Bridget McCarthy) is fun. If you’re a Tavern regular, you know that this play completes the Henry trilogy. Act I starts a bit slowly; there’s a lot of exposition to deliver; then the pace picks up, and Act II is almost a separate play. The show is almost three hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
The legendary Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom comments that “it is so much Henry V’s play that the irony is not immediately evident; there is no substantial role for anyone except the warrior-king.” Be that as it may, if you don’t have a superlative Henry, you don’t have a play. We are blessed to have Jonathan Horne, an actor of keen intelligence, extraordinary talent, and undeniable charisma. His presence galvanizes both his fellow actors and the audience. He understands that Henry is not an entirely admirable man; that in fact he can be quite ruthless. But he also understands that Henry is a great king; he has been groomed for it since the day he was born. When he recites the St. Crispin’s speech, Mr. Horne’s Henry is not a sentimental orator with stars in his eyes; instead he is powerful, calculated, and subtle, and knows exactly what he is doing.
Dr. Bloom: “No one could fall in love with Henry V, but no one altogether could resist him either.”
The entire cast is outstanding, but it is Jonathan Horne who makes “Henry V” must-see viewing.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.