S.F. Shakes presents a triumphant version of the Bard’s “Henry V” that no theater-lovers should miss!
A muscular production re-creates a battlefield, a siege, and both enemy camps using only a few boxes, boards and skeletal ladders, just as the playwright suggested in his initial charge to the Globe audience: “Let your imaginary forces work, for ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings…turning the accomplishments of many years into an hourglass.”
A prelude sketches the often questionable financial and political motivations for declaring war, and the personal pique that some national leaders use to justify sending thousands into battle to their death. It seems a disquietingly modern scene, but it is as old as the ancient history of warfare, and mankind itself.
Young King Henry V is anxious to prove his worth after a feckless youth of excess as Prince Hal, companion to roistering Sir John Falstaff. Urged on by venal prelates and taunted by a scornful French Dauphin, he declares war on France to regain his supposed rights to that land by duplicating the historic victory of his ancestor, the Black Prince, at Crecy.
The stage is set for a mustering of men, from humble peasants to mighty lords, high-minded patriots to profiteering scum. In other words, the entire spectrum of humanity, from best to worst, each individual memorably brought to life by a cast of only 11, each playing a multitude of parts.
How clearly the heroism, cowardice, and all the foibles of personality stand out in the harsh glare of warfare, as the king learns while wandering in disguise among his troops. (If only modern leaders could so personally hear the voices of those on the front line!)
Heading the players as King Henry is Craig Marker, recently the stellar lead in Center Rep’s “Arms and the Man”. This young Dublin native shines here as a new ruler, earnestly determined to shed his past reputation and become the inspiring leader, noble judge, and compassionate monarch. Even the churchmen, in their initial plotting, pay amazed tribute to his transformation, praising his ideal virtues in sycophantic terms that seem less than believable, but must have pleased his descendant, Queen Elizabeth I, also striving to be an ideal monarch.
Marker miraculously makes this paragon a reality from the start. Mercifully pardoning a man who “railed against him” while drunk, he is chided for his leniency by three noble lords he knows to be traitors. Scornfully turning their harsh judgments against their own heads, he orders them executed immediately. Yet, as a vulnerable human, he expresses his pain and grief at this betrayal by trusted comrades. It is a sobering revelation of how wary any leader must be of even his nearest and dearest, as many have since learned.
Henry V is a plum role, filled with many famous ringing speeches: “Once more into the breach, dear friends”, and the rousing St. Crispin’s Day exhortation to his exhausted troops, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” Marker does full justice to each with passionate sincerity, as if convincing himself along with his men.
He also renders intimately personal the introspective monologues about the unbearably heavy responsibilities of a monarch, who must answer for every soul in his realm: “We must bear it all. Oh, hard condition, twin-born with greatness! What infinite hearts-ease must kings neglect that private men enjoy!” Like his father in “Henry IV”, he laments that monarchs can never enjoy the deep untroubled sleep of a tired peasant, nor will all their pomp and riches heal their sickness. The “hollow” crown”, indeed!
Like his father, he prays for the well-being of his country, and repents of the usurpation that brought him to the throne. But he also shows himself noble in victory, forbidding looting or carnage by his victorious troops, even condemning a former lowlife comrade for stealing from a church. Attributing his small forces’ triumph to God, he orders death for anyone who boasts otherwise – an almost incredible saintly modesty. Shakespeare even portrays him as a truly romantic wooer of the French princess, rather than claiming her for what she really is: a political forfeit of war.
Of course all this is a patently patriotic script, depicting the outnumbered English forces as valiant, while preening French nobles sound like boastful boys who receive their well-deserved comeuppance. It may seem overdone to modern ears, but to a contemporary audience, facing foreign threats, it was a reaffirmation of their small country’s fortitude, a reminder of the improbably glorious victory at Agincourt, and the heroic monarch who rallied them to win the day.
Oddly enough, it is a prophetic script of the British fortitude during WWII, enduring the Battle of Britain with amazing resilience, encouraged by the rousing speeches of P.M. Winston Churchill, and a king who walked among his people in their darkest hours, inspiring them to heroism.
Heroic is the adjective for the entire cast of actors who play a dizzying variety of roles, each with different personality and speech. Busiest of all is veteran performer Jack Powell, who morphs from shrewd Archbishop of Canterbury to brawling wastrel Bardolph, the elderly king of France, noble English Lord Erpingham, and a terrified French prisoner. His flawless diction is especially effective in the Chorus speeches, bringing clarity and understanding to the audience.
Ryan Tasker, a familiar Livermore Shakespeare player, does a marvelous turn as the peacock-proud French Dauphin and the Welsh Captain Fluellen, thick accent, leeks and all. Another well-known actor, Michael Ray Wisely, excels as both the staunch Lord Exeter and the bawdy larcenous lowlife Pistol.
Longtime Shakespearean Anthony Shaw Abbate shows his skill in numerous roles, as do newcomers Nick Childress, Sean Robert Garahan, and Barnaby Jones. Two excellent female leads also share the stage. Michele Delattre embodies both the lusty Hostess, Dame Quickly, and Alice, amusing maid to Princess Katherine, and enlivens the show with musical intervals as well. Maggie Mason, a memorable Raina in “Arms and the Man”, plays the coquettish French princess, whose hilarious English lesson scene is always an audience favorite, as well as the pensive page who mourns old Falstaff and decries the base natures of his companions.
Veteran director Kenneth Kelleher has creatively placed his cast in a WWI setting, and used songs both patriotic and cheeky, period and modern to air the emotions of common folk at war in any age. Cassandra Carpenter’s costumes, Robert Anderson’s lighting, and Daniel Yelen’s minimalist set also blur the timelines to allow a universal interpretation.
Two more weekends remain tor this judiciously trimmed and finely-honed production: Saturdays and Sundays, July 7 and 8, 14 and 15, at 7:30 P.M. in Amador Valley Community Park, Black Avenue off Santa Rita, behind the Aquatic Center. Parking is plentiful. Admission is free, courtesy of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and Pleasanton’s Arts Council.
Bring picnics, warm jackets, and low chairs for a great evening’s entertainment, and help keep SF Shakes’ 30-year tradition alive with generous donations after this rousing show.