Once more unto the breach, with feeling.
Such might have been the response of famous “Henry V” stars Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh or even Tom Hiddleston to the opening performance of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s production of “Henry V,” which kicked off the company’s 39th season of free summer theater on a picture-perfect Thursday night.
This production, directed by Saul Elkin and starring an appealing but too often impassive Patrick Moltane in the title role, slowly creaked to life by the time its most famous moment arrived in the middle of the second act. But the warm-up was too long, and the cool-down too rapid, to make this much more than a passable attempt to animate Shakespeare’s thorny exploration of the space between the noble rhetoric and bloody realities of imperial warfare.
The issue at the center of the play is the nature of war and patriotism, and how monarchs (or dictators, or presidents) stoke and manipulate it. Of all the eloquent English kings in Shakespeare, few are more gifted in the rhetoric of war than Henry V, who by the time the play opens has set aside his playboy past and taken up the apparently more adult responsibility of war-making. In his program note, Elkin notes the instruction of Henry’s father, the late Henry IV, to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”
On that advice, Henry asks an adviser to invent a flimsy pretext for war with France. He raises an army of farmers and peasants and then leads them across the English Channel and into bloody conflict with his French enemies. Along the way, he delivers some of the more enduring speeches about warfare, including his insistence that his frightened soldiers head “once more unto the breach” during a difficult battle and his declaration that he and his fellow noblemen will be long remembered as a “band of brothers” who fought valiantly against the enemy.
Moltane, a likable though too infrequently commanding stage presence, delivers those earth-rattling speeches with all the requisite volume and bluster they seem to demand. But there’s something rote about much of his performance that gives it the quality of an inspired declamation of poetry rather than a deeply felt outpouring of patriotic bluster. While this may have been a deliberate choice meant to highlight the constructed or rehearsed nature of Henry’s pep talks and therefore of patriotism itself, it often lacks the essential emotional punch.
However, like the rest of the production, Moltane’s performance is almost guaranteed to gain nuance and power as the run continues. And there are plenty of highlights, notably Tom Loughlin as Pistol, some fine ad-libbing from Gerry Maher as the Welsh captain Fluellen and compelling supporting performances from Arianne Davidow and Marie Hasselback-Costa as the French princess Katharine and her lady-in-waiting. Davidow and Hasselback-Costa’s scene, in which the princess learns the English words for human anatomy in preparation for her meeting with Henry, is the comic highlight of the play.
Many of the other comic scenes, owing more to the obscurity of their content than their execution, fall flat.
Shakespeare’s omniscient narrator, who periodically implores audiences to use their imaginations to fill out the gaps in the production, appears in the form of a bleach-blond Tim Newell decked out in silver-tipped shoes and a shiny black cape as if he had just walked out of a Frank Miller comic book. It’s a bizarre choice totally at odds with the otherwise thoroughly traditional tone of the production, but Newell makes the best of it.
This play presents a number of problems, especially for American audiences unfamiliar with the history of the English monarchy and its misadventures. The first is its function as one episode in a much larger drama. Watching “Henry V” on its own is a bit like tuning into “Game of Thrones” in the middle of its third season – rewarding for its individual performances and characters but potentially confusing. Elkin’s approach, which cuts the play down to three hours including intermission, sidesteps some of those problems.
The play also is quite bipolar when it comes to its position on war. On the one hand, when Henry’s emissary Exeter delivers his demands to the French king, he does so with a warning meant to bring the enemy face-to-face with the consequences of war.
Exeter implores the French king to give up the crown and to “take mercy on the poor souls for whom this hungry war opens his vasty jaws” and to think of “the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries, the dead men’s blood, the pining maidens groans.”
On the other, it seems to glory in the lofty language of war and its tendency to rend the innocent limb from limb, the former in Henry V’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech and the latter in his terrifying warning to the governor of a French town.
Other productions of this tricky play have succeeded by tending to highlight one pole or the other. Despite some redeeming moments, this one gets lost in the middle.