A complex player king rules ‘Henry V’ at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

The sparseness and intensity of the production underscore the ambiguity of the play’s central question: Is Henry V a benevolent or malign ruler?

Henry V may have been one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays staged when the Globe Theatre opened in 1599. When the modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe opened in 1997, Henry V was the first play performed. (Modern scholarly consensus is that Julius Caesar was the first play at the Globe Theatre and Henry V — with all of its metatheatrical references to the “wooden O” — celebrated this particular stage shortly later that same year.)

It is fitting then that as Chesapeake Shakespeare Company reopened its doors post-pandemic, the first Shakespeare play upon its immersive thrust stage was Henry V with Executive Director Lesley Malin offering her welcoming remarks before morphing into the Chorus with the resonating opening lines: “O, for a muse of fire…”

Throughout the production, she sits in the balcony or in the crowd until the Chorus’s next speech and joins the large ensemble cast — Ian Charles, Jonas Connors-Grey, Michael Crowley, Terrance Fleming, Oz Heiligman, DeJeanette Horne, Bess Kaye, Morgan Pavey, Sam Richie, Teresa Spencer, and Ryan Tumulty — to move the action from the theatrical stage to the royal courts of England or France, and from ships to battlefields. Connors-Grey, Fleming, Horne, and Tumulty are all standouts in their various roles.

Samuel Adams (Henry) and the cast of ‘Henry V.’ Photo by Kiirstn Pagan.

On the spare stage with several wooden crates operating as chairs, thrones, steps, and barricades designed by Dan O’Brien and the simple costuming that nods toward Elizabethan attire by Kristina Lambdin, the play’s famous opening lines call upon the imagination of viewers to fill in the gaps, to make the battlefields full of armored horses.

The sparseness and intensity of the production underscore the ambiguity of the play’s central question: Is Henry V a benevolent or malign ruler? But the play’s thesis (left purposefully answered) could be clearer in a more streamlined production with more cuts and less comedy.

Henry V is a play of contradictions, at once seemingly medieval and timeless (leaders invading other nations under the most absurd of reasons, charismatic politicians misleading their followers, jingoism, and more). Director Alec Wild highlights the tensions between patriotism and unbridled nationalism while creating a complex portrait of the titular king. As played with both boyish charm and calculated coldness by Samuel Adams, Henry V is a modern politician fighting a medieval war.

At times, this Henry, who prominently wears a cross, seems authentically pious in reposeful moments of prayer and at other times seems to play the part of false piety (as well as the devilish Richard III). Adams can stir up patriotic zeal among the English soldiers with his great “once more unto the breach…” and St. Crispin’s Day speeches, but his loyal soldiers express dismay and disgust in his cruel threats against the defenseless citizens of Harfleur. Even his stoic uncle Exeter (played with a noble presence by Dawn Thomas Reidy) seems quietly exasperated with Henry at points. He can walk among his common soldiers disguised and debate the king’s guilt in civil bloodshed, and even woo Princess Katherine of France (a spirited and giddy Morgan Pavey) after the destruction of her native land and the deaths of countless noble kinsmen.

Morgan Pavey (Princess Katherine of France) and Samuel Adams (Henry) in ‘Henry V.’ Photo by Kiirstn Pagan.

Henry’s sharpest weapon is his ability to tell others what they need to hear in the moment. Adams is most convincing in the scenes when the king seems unguarded or vulnerable, exposing his humanity.

Henry speaks often of mercy — and early on in the play he even offers an out for three treasonous noblemen that they fail to understand or achieve — but he allows the executions of his old petty criminal pals. He orders the execution all the French prisoners of war and, after the murder of the helpless young pages guarding the English luggage, he states that now he is finally mad and without mercy. We hadn’t seen much mercy before.

We are given several dubious reasons why King Henry has invaded France. (It’s hard at this moment not to think of Putin’s lies and propaganda for invading Ukraine.) The Archbishop of Canterbury (Jonas Connors-Grey) discounts Salic Law (which disinherits the female line’s claims to the French throne) as only applying technically to Germany so that Henry has a claim to France to a distant maternal ancestor. In a flashback (added from Henry IV, Part 2), the dying Henry IV advises his son to unite his men and keep them busy against a foreign enemy to avoid domestic unrest. Then, there are the tennis balls. The Dauphin of France (an outstanding Terrance Fleming) mocks the fellow young prince by sending a treasure of tennis balls. Henry V declares war and over 10,000 Frenchmen (including the Dauphin) are declared dead after the Battle of Agincourt.

Terrance Fleming (the Dauphin of France) and the cast of ‘Henry V.’ Photo by Kiirstn Pagan.

Wild’s script helpfully adds a brief flashback montage early in the play with scenes from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 to show the evolution of the prodigal Prince Hal to his ascension as King Henry V and his banishment of Falstaff. He also removes some scenes and characters altogether.

There could be some more paring back, too, to heighten Wild’s depiction of Henry as the ultimate “Player King.” The comedic scenes with the braggadocio Pistol (Sam Richie), Bardolph (Jonas Connors-Grey), and Nym (Ian Charles) hinge on archaic wordplay that slows the pace of the main plot, and Fluellen’s (Michael Crowley) many ancient history lessons fall flat.

Nonetheless, some of the archaic bits work well. When the Welsh Fluellen’s ancient custom of wearing a leek on St. Davy’s Day is mocked and he forces the cowardly Pistol to eat the leek, the scene of comedic abuse and international insult/assault parodies the horrors of war we’ve been witnessing between England and France. (Even two rows back I could smell the leek and imagine Richie will avoid onions for sometime after the play closes.) Or, when Princess Katherine tries to learn the English names for the parts of the body, several of the bawdy jokes come through quite clearly with help of her more worldly attendant Alice (a keen Teresa Spencer), even if the audience doesn’t know a lick of French.

By the time the Chorus returns to the stage for the epilogue, standing in front of the newly wed Henry and Katherine, and the reconciled French and English monarch (with the former having lost so much for so little), we are over Henry’s political antics. The Chorus points out that Henry V dies young and his heir Henry VI will lose his French holdings. As we all know from Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, the menace of continued bloodshed and future wars, of even more treasonous English noblemen, and the threat of the most villainous of Shakespeare’s English monarchs Richard III all loom ahead.

Samuel Adams (Henry) and the cast of ‘Henry V.’ Photo by Kiirstn Pagan.

Shakespeare’s history plays can plod along and this production is no exception. There are riveting moments in the staged battles (choreographed by Robb Hunter) and the premise of the production is provocative, but a more streamlined version could better drive home the horrors of war.

Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Henry V plays through May 15, 2022, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company – 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased online, by calling 410-244-8570, or by visiting the Box Office in person. Ticket prices range from $24 to $63, with discounts available for active-duty military, seniors, and anyone age 25 or younger.

COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination will be required to enter the theater. For those unable to get a vaccine due to age, medical restrictions, or religious beliefs, proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test within the past 72 hours of the performance will be required. Masks must be worn at all times while in the theater. Complete Health and Safety FAQs are here.

Henry V
By William Shakespeare

CAST LIST (in alphabetical order)
Samuel Adams – King Henry V
Ian Charles – Nym/Duke of Bedford/Williams/others
Michael Crowley – Fluellen/Henry IV/Constable/others
Terrance Fleming – Dauphin/Earl of Westmorland
Jonas Grey – Archbishop of Canterbury/Bardolph/King of France/others
Ryan Tumulty – Montjoy/Bates/Grey/others
Oz Heiligman – Boy/others
DeJeanette Horne – Gower/Governor of Harfleur/Rambures/others
Bess Kaye – Gloucester/Orléans
Lesley Malin – Chorus
Morgan Pavey – Katherine/Bishop of Ely/others
Dawn Thomas Reidy – Duke of Exeter
Sam Richie – Pistol/others
Teresa Spencer – Nell Quickly/Alice/others

Alec Wild – Director
Séamus Miller – Assistant Director
Sarah Curnoles – Production Manager
Jesús López Vargas – Production Stage Manager
Dan O’Brien – Scenic Designer/ Technical Director
Minjoo Kim – Lighting Designer
Kristina Lambdin – Costume Coordinator
Jess Rassp – Props Designer
Caleb Stine – Composer
Lisa Beley – Text and Vocal Coach
Robb Hunter – Fight Choreographer
Grace Srinivasan – Music Director
Abigail Funk – Rehearsal Stage Manager
Eva Hill – Assistant Stage Manager
Dassi Choen – Production Assistant
Hannah Brill – Wardrobe Supervisor
Heather Jackson, Matthew Smith – Costume Assistants
Jennifer Bae – Sticher
Kristopher Ingle – Lightboard Operator
Bess Kaye – Fight Captain
Ben Kenny – Backstage Intern
Mandy Benedix – Covid Safety Officer
Dr. Bob Connors – CSC Covid Health Advisor
Pam Forton – Senior House Manager


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