England’s crown rests on the head of the once wild and undisciplined acolyte of Falstaff, Prince Hal, now a wise and noble monarch leading his country into war with France. Rousing and cinematic in scope, Henry V raises compelling questions about leadership in a troubled world that powerfully echoes our own. With this production, CSF completes the four-play Henriad history cycle begun in 2013.
Through the figure of the Chorus in Henry V, Shakespeare invited his audiences at the Globe Theater to look back from their Elizabethan perspective to a time nearly two hundred years earlier -- to imagine the people and events of 1415. In our production, we acknowledge that we are once more removed -- that we are creating a semblance of Shakespeare's stage on which he created a semblance of the events leading to the battle of Agincourt. And we are doing so presentationally, as he did, in our efforts to be true to the spirit as well as the form of what we might call the "Brechtian" style of this particular history play. There are three (at least) unusual things about Henry V that give the play its distinctiveness. First, the principal action of the play, three-fifths of its length, is set in the midst of a military campaign that culminates in one of England's most famous victories, known as The Battle of Agincourt. Yet in this play, unlike many of his other English and Roman history plays, Shakespeare keeps all of the fighting off-stage. The elaborate battle scenes in the film versions are interpolations by the directors. A second unusual feature of the play is Shakespeare's use of the Chorus figure (which in our production is played by various actors who also perform roles in the play). In no other play does he make such extensive and continuous use of a narrator reminding us that the world of the play is a fabrication:"Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/That did affright the air at Agincourt? A third unusual feature of Henry V is the amount of time the play gives to characters from the ranks of commoners, from Henry's former cronies in his tavern-hopping days, to low-ranking officers in the field, to common foot soldiers. Unlike the first play in the tetralogy, Richard II, in which the voices of commoners were almost completely absent, characters from the common ranks have prominent roles throughout Henry V, and not just comedic roles as in the Henry IV plays. In fact, taken as a whole these characters have many more lines than the various members of the English nobility, save Henry himself. Taken together, these three unusual aspects of the play suggest to me that in Henry V Shakespeare has created a "behind the scenes" look at historical events. He presents to us a young monarch's efforts to win over the hearts and minds of his people, the common people, through whose allegiance he hopes not only to achieve victory over the French but also to legitimize permanently his wearing of the crown. To this end we see on the stage not battles, but the common soldiers, inspired by the exhortations of their young king, becoming participants in these Great Events. In this play Shakespeare offers a perspective from the common man's point of view, a "people's history" of one of the most remarkable military campaigns in English history. ---James M. Symons
THE STORY SO FAR . . . Richard II: A generation before Henry mounts the throne, England is ruled by Richard the Second. Believing absolutely that he is God's anointed, Richard does little to instill faith in a country rushing headlong towards civil war. His cousin Henry Bolingbroke accuses the king of complicity in the death of an uncle; Richard banishes Bolingbroke and, in a move that causes an even deeper rift between the cousins, confiscates lands and possessions that should have passed to Henry upon the death of his father. Henry returns from exile to openly declare against the king. One by one, the remaining nobles turn on Richard, who is captured, imprisoned in Pomfret Castle and forced to abdicate. While Henry scrambles to defend his actions and stave off an uprising by the King's supporters, one of his associates misinterprets an idle remark, "Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?", and murders Richard. The play ends with Bolingbroke's coronation as Henry IV. Henry IV, Part I: Following directly on the heels of the previous play, Henry IV, i mixes two main storylines, one political and one personal. A group of nobles, led by the Percy family, are seeking to remove the "usurper" from the throne. While Henry is consumed by guilt over the death of Richard II, the rebels bicker among themselves, slowly squandering any real chance they might have. Meanwhile, Henry's family life brings him even more pain and grief: his eldest son and heir, Prince Hal, has chosen to ignore his royal duties and carouses with the drunken knight, Sir John Falstaff and a band of lowlifes. King Henry cannot help but compare Hal with Hotspur, who seems to be everything that he wishes his own son were: " Mars in swaddling clothes, this infant warrior." When the rebels finally attack, King Henry promises a pardon if they will disband. When the offer is rejected, battle ensues. Proving his worth to his father (and himself), Hal saves Henry from death and then kills his rival Hotspur in hand-to-hand combat. Henry IV, Part II: The civil war continues as do Hal's adventures with Falstaff. Fleeing to avoid arrest for debt, Falstaff raises an army and joins the fighting. While Henry's second son, Prince John, cunningly defeats the rebel forces, the soul sick king lies gravely ill. When Hal is brought to his father, he thinks the old man dead and picks up the crown. The king awakes to find his son wearing the crown; there follows a scene of recrimination and, ultimately, reconciliation. Hal vows to abandon his carousing and takes his place as ruler after Henry IV dies. Hastening to the coronation of the new Henry V, Falstaff and his comrades expect a warm welcome. But the new monarch, beginning to understand the demands of kingship, flatly rejects the fat knight: "I know thee not, old man." A new order has come to England. PLOT SYNOPSIS: HENRY V Backed by both the Church and his advisors, England's young King Henry determines to regain his lands in France. The French Dauphin's insulting gift of tennis balls, mocking Henry's frivolous youth, only strengthens his resolve and, having disposed of traitors in his court, the King sails for France. Two of Henry's former companions, Pistol and Bardolph, and Corporal Nym, a rival for the affections of Hostess Quickly, witness Falstaff's lonely death. Along with the boy that served as Falstaff's page, they join the ranks and head for war. The King of France offers Henry some minor lands and his daughter Katherine's hand in marriage; Henry rejects the weak offer and besieges Harfleur. The courageous Welsh captain Fluellen helps drive the troops in battle. After Henry threatens the town with utter destruction, Harfleur's governor surrenders. France decides that England must be stopped, and dispatches a large army to confront the weary English forces. On the eve of battle at Agincourt, the King walks in disguise among his men, talking with them as equals. A confrontation with one soldier, Williams, leads to an exchange of gloves, with the promise of a challenge if ever they meet again. The hugely outnumbered English, boosted by Henry's rousing speech, charge into battle. As the English start to turn the tide, the French retaliate by killing the boys guarding the luggage train. France's Herald finally concedes victory to Henry, asking only for permission to bury the dead. Henry, after dealing with Williams' challenge, negotiates a peace with France that may include the Princess Katherine. --Lars Tatom
HENRY V: Sinner or Saint? "We are no tyrant, but a Christian King . . . go tell the pleasant prince this mock of his [shall] mock castles down" Responding to the Dauphin's insulting gift of tennis balls, young King Henry points up the inherent contradictions in his character. Is he a righteous king as he claims or, as some critics have argued, a manipulating Machiavel who promises bloody revenge for a petty insult in a thoroughly un-Christian spirit? In the two previous plays in the tetralogy, we watched this young man participate in robbery and carouse with cowards, yet it was also he who saved his father in battle and rejected criminal acquaintance. Such ambiguities have provided twentieth-century directors with the opportunity to explore Henry's character in various, even contrasting, ways. Consider the celebrated film versions by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. After five years of war with Nazi Germany, with memories of the Blitz and Dunkirk still fresh, Olivier's 1944 version served as a patriotic war cry for the English. He extensively cut the text, presenting a Henry destined to lead England to victory over the Continent, while dodging anything that might hint at a dark side. Gone is the entire traitor scene: a character calculated to arouse public sentiment needs no hint of dissent within his own ranks. The King's threats at Harfleur are sanitized; the fields clean, the sky blue. This is Henry as cheerleader, offering King and country a bright light in the darkness. Branagh's film couldn't be more at odds with Olivier's. At the end of the1980s, with the Falklands a recent memory, Branagh offers an emotionally raw version, with little pageantry. The tale is dark, both in lighting and in tone; where Olivier's battles were pristine, Branagh's are a muddy mess. His Henry is complex, at times vicious, driven to make hard decisions for his country's survival. His speech at Harfleur, with its promise of blood, flames, waste and desolation, holds nothing back. He does not hesitate to order the killing of the French prisoners when a renewed attack begins at Agincourt. There is no romance to war in this version; it is questioned at every turn. Branagh suggests that a monarch must be Machiavellian, that brutality is necessary no matter how Christian a ruler aspires to be. Ultimately, each new production of Henry V must make a choice about Henry. The question is raised even before the start of the play: at the end of Henry IV, Part Two, the dying king urges his son to wage a war abroad to distract England from festering civil strife; and in the beginning of Henry V, the Church offers the king what amounts to a bribe to go to war. What does it say about Henry that he initiates a war with its resultant death and misery? Is he an over-reacher eager to take what he wants at any cost, or is he the righteous ruler whom England still holds up as "full of grace and fair regard"? In the hands of Shakespeare, he is both and much more. ---Lars Tatom
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