by Christopher J. Wilson
William Shakespeare’s Henry V is preoccupied with modesty. “But pardon,” begs the chorus in the prologue, “and gentles all/ The flat unraised spirits that have dared/ On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/ So great an object.” Shakespeare’s suggestion that mere actors cannot do justice to the Battle of Agincourt did not stop Matt Super ’15, with help from Fun Funds, from trying. Unfortunately, none of the Bard’s modesty was present in last weekend’s production of Henry V at the Hill Theater. Super adapted, shortened and directed the performance, and his gusto showed through.
While King Henry (Amy Young ’16) is a strong leader and a compelling character, most of his development actually takes place prior to Henry V’s plot. Characters reference this younger, more rash Henry throughout the play, but the audience never actually sees him; they rely on the word of the other characters in believing that the king onstage was anything other than rational and competent.
Super’s adaptation, while whittling the potentially monumental play down to less than two hours, also exacerbated confusion. I understand the need to make the cuts, but certain omitted scenes, such as one in which two of Henry’s advisors gossip about the king’s rocky past, made an already difficult play harder to follow.
Another stumbling block came from Super’s decision to cut the cast of over 40 characters to a handful of actors, with all but Young playing three or more roles. The confident actors showed a great deal of familiarity with their archaic lines, and refreshingly found much of Shakespeare’s humor. However, it was often unclear which character an actor portrayed at any given time. Tristan Biber ’17 and Luca Agunos ’18 were most successful at differentiating their roles, but they also had the easiest distinctions, as they alternated between genders and languages. The costuming did little to help character distinction. The actors all wore black pants and boots, and rotated through a selection of white T-shirts marked with a flag or symbol. The T-shirts only served to split the attention of the audience between who was talking and what they were saying.
Still, a few moments of the play shone. When Henry wandered through his camp in disguise to hear his troops’ true opinions of him, Young excelled. She found some of the touching complexity and difficulty that King Henry faces, and she handled it beautifully.
Confusing directorial decisions, however, cluttered this genuine moment and others like it. Why, if all the characters carry swords, did machine-gun fire sound in battle scenes? Why, during the jig at the end showing the marriage of Henry and Katherine, did Super opt for a tedious three-minute routine set to Walk the Moon rather than something more direct?
In all, the confusing multi-casting and inconsistent directorial decisions kept Henry V from becoming anything but a two-hour diversion, and even in that I’m not sure that it succeeded. A friend with whom I saw the performance fell asleep three times — I think that speaks for itself.