Before this week, the last Henry V that I’d seen was a Royal Shakespeare Company production at BAM in 2016. It was, as you’d expect of the RSC, a lavish, armor-laden, smoke- and spear-filled spectacle. Now, on the other end of the spectrum, comes the Public Theater’s Henry V, a no-frills Mobile Unit production that dispenses not only with the swords and the spectacle but also with a good 60 or so minutes of the actual play. Truthfully, both versions were equally stirring.
Shakespeare purists may be put off by the Mobile Unit’s laid-back, loosey-goosey style: actors doing calf stretches in the aisles and chatting with ticketholders before the show; no fancy lighting or costumes (scarves are put to ample and creative use); a trimmed-within-an-inch-of-its-life script (a taut 1 hour and 45 minutes instead of the standard Shakespearean 3 hours). But that’s how this traveling troupe—which takes shows to community centers and correctional facilities throughout the five boroughs plus Westchester—demystifies the Bard.
Henry V is ripe for this type of minimalist theatrical treatment. As far as Shakespeare’s plays go, it’s pretty simple, even simplistic, story-wise: A young, insecure English king starts a war, well, because he can. And also because he needs to earn some street cred. After spending Henry IV drinking and screwing around with that lovable ne’er-do-well Falstaff, the monarch formerly known as Prince Hal doesn’t have the best rep. What better way to prove his worth than by staging a major land-grab, humiliating France, and marrying the French princess?
Robert O’Hara—who many will recognize as both a playwright (Bootycandy, Barbecue, Mankind) and a director (he helmed, among other titles, future Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays Part 2: The Brothers Size and Marcus; The Secret of the Sweet in 2009 at the Public)—has whittled the history play down to its essentials: showing Henry’s strength as a soldier, as a ruler, and as a man. A versatile ensemble of nine doubles up and triples up to play roles from stately English lords and earls to sulky French royals (oh, these French are a very pouty, petulant bunch, which the audience eats up), and actress Zenzi Williams plays the battle-bound Henry. And Williams’ casting is no mere stunt: She’s got fire in her eyes and ferocity in her heart. When you hear her Saint Crispin’s Day speech—“ We few, we happy few, we band of brothers/ For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother”—you’ll be ready to get up and follow her into battle yourself…or just about anywhere.
O’Hara and Williams also put a surprising twist on the famous fifth-act seduction of Princess Katharine (Carolyn Kettig). Let’s face it: Henry winning France in one thing; Henry winning Katharine is another. It’s always been a little creepy. But he ultimately always charms the reluctant princess with his bumbling French and regular-guy charisma. Here, the charisma evaporates quickly and turns into something far more disturbing. Lines that have heretofore sounded sweet now ring with blacker meaning. “What sayest thou then to my love?” coos Williams with just a hint of menace in her voice. “Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine” has never sounded so much like a threat. It’s a brave choice, and one that works brilliantly. After all, the play technically doesn’t end on a high note. In the epilogue, the chorus tells us that Henry’s son ruins everything his father fought for (au revoir, France!). Why should Henry and Kate get a happy ending now?
Henry V opened April 27, 2018, and runs through May 13. Tickets and information: publictheater.org