Henry V famously begins with an invocation from the chorus to the audience to forgive the inability of the stage to render the vastness and grandeur of the war it seeks to depict. The latest production by Stanford Shakespeare Company might as well neglect this, for this staging captures the subtle violence and manipulation that lies at the heart of the play without needing help from the Muse of fire.
Kevin Heller (‘16) delivers a wonderful performance as the eponymous king, commanding the stage as both the shrewd politician of the beginning of the play and the selfless leader of its end. (Full disclosure: I might be biased as to Kevin’s leadership ability; I voted for him as my dorm president last year). Lord Harry is a difficult character, especially given his evolution throughout the Henriad, but Heller was able to show the range of emotions from doubting to fearless to romantic with ease. He is backed up by a tremendous supporting cast: I was particularly struck by the chorus, played by Kevin Hurlbutt (‘14), who delivered Shakespeare’s monologues skillfully enough to emote without sacrificing clarity.
The play was set in an ambiguously Vietnam War-era time, with entr’actes consisting of songs by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin (and of course, “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, requisite in any Vietnam War throwback) and footage from films like First Blood and Apocalypse Now, as well as costumes meant to evoke U.S. Army uniforms of the period. This adaptation felt like a miss. Anachronism nearly always removes me totally from the world of the play, which I don’t like to be removed from. Henry V is great enough to stand on its own. Attempts to modernize shows are difficult to pull off, especially because everybody wants to reimagine them in the same way; the number of post-apocalyptic Macbeth productions is rapidly approaching infinity. Henry V is so clearly tied to its period that trying to update it seems off-putting. The British didn’t fight in Vietnam; mixing the nationalities came off a little awkward. And using ‘Nam seems like a bit of a cop-out. It’s the quintessential antiwar war, and our generation has been preconditioned to believe in the unjustness of it since middle school. But no other modern war really fits in with the themes of the play, especially in the age of drone warfare. Henry V has some beautiful things to say about the nature of war and courage and where we derive authority from, but I think that trying to shoehorn these themes in the context of modern war is a fruitless endeavor.
It’s very possible that I’m just an old fogey, or that I missed the nuance. I’m untrained in theater, and I very rarely like modernized adaptations of Shakespeare, because I think that a) his works are universal enough to be important and enjoyable and edifying regardless of context and b) most audiences are basically familiar enough with the plot and setting of his plays that they understand the context necessary, so trying to update them into a more familiar setting insults the audience. But that’s one stubborn man’s opinion.
I really encourage you to see the play — StanShakes (I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this portmanteau) has some amazing actors who can breathe life into a very powerful play. The St. Crispin’s Day speech made me want to leap out of my seat and fight some Frenchmen (Canadians will suffice, after the past few days of hockey). It’s impossible not to be pulled along into the breach with them, and I think you’ll emerge better for it.
Henry V runs through Saturday 2/22 — more info and tickets can be found here.