KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 21, 2000
Dakin Matthews is true to his word. As dramaturge and director, his primary concern has always been clarity. While his Old Globe production of “Henry V” may not be chilling or thrilling, and it probably wouldn’t inspire you to follow the charismatic young king into battle, it is textually lucid and precisely articulated. Aside from some finely etched secondary performances, that’s the principal asset of this production.
The pared-down text makes rather unambiguous the complex machinations of the British and the French, which are elucidated by Ralph Funicello’s set design, establishing a stage right, two-tiered British area, adorned with the regal lion, and a comparable curtained balcony stage-left for the French, festooned with fleur de lis. So even though they all talk the same, except for the lovely young princess, Henry’s French-speaking wife-to-be and her maid, it’s quite comprehensible who’s who and what’s what.
Combining poetry, pageantry and history, “Henry V” is a contemplation of war and nationalism, language and leadership. First presented in 1598, the play continues the story of the early 15th century Plantagenet king. Shakespeare chronicles his evolution from the wild, profligate “Prince Hal” of “Henry IV” to the surprisingly wise, compassionate and capable monarch he becomes as Henry V, or Hank Cinq, which, as he did, unites the English and the French.
In an effort to conquer France, and in revenge for a sarcastic and contemptuous gift from the French Dauphin, Harry leads a vastly outnumbered, ragtag army to triumph in the decisive battle of Agincourt, which changed the course of European history. In one of the seminal scenes of the play, the king walks disguised among his fearful soldiers the night before the battle. Then, after he prays for victory, he rouses his troops in an unforgettable call to arms. If you saw the heart-stopping film with Kenneth Branagh, another master of Shakespearean language and clarity, you won’t soon forget the stirring speech about St. Crispin’s Day. But here, Michael Eric Strickland, as pleasant, fair-minded and likable a king as he is, lacks the requisite force, energy, vocal power and sheer magnetism to enthrall an army — or an audience.
His supporting cast is unassailable: especially Norman Snow as the hilariously hyperverbal Welsh Captain Fluellen, and Globe regulars Don Sparks as a goofy Bardolph and Kandis Chappell in multiple, gender-crossing roles. The theatricality of the production is galvanic at times: watching the Chorus change clothes and characters before our eyes, or recreating, with simple effects, the decisive and deadly offstage battles. But there’s a hole in the center of this carefully woven fabric: the lack of a majestic majesty center stage, which leads one to declare, Hank Sank.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.