I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the Bolton Theater on Thursday night. Not only was I unfamiliar with the play I was about to see — Shakespeare’s Henry V — but, inexplicably, an acoustic version of Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” was playing over the house loudspeakers. On stage, three hulking set pieces were draped with costume pieces soon to be donned by the actors. Fog began to fill the auditorium, and the play began.
The story details King Henry V (Grace Joliffe ’23) attempting to conquer France and seize the throne, which he has become convinced he is the rightful heir to through some complexity of the European royal family tree. He goes to France with a small ragtag army and is — miraculously — able to defeat the much larger and more organized French force. The play follows Henry, his court, their French counterparts (some of whom have French accents) and a group who later become soldiers in the British army led by the gregarious Pistol (Caleb Stern ’23).
Henry V shows Shakespeare’s depth as a playwright: It’s technically a history play, but still has the angåst and soliloquy of a drama and the happy ending of a comedy. In this production, the play was a vehicle for showing the depth of Kenyon’s acting talent. Joliffe was fantastic in the lead role of Henry, and Julia Friedman ’23 as Henry’s eventual wife Katherine got the biggest laughs of the night in the scene where she tries to learn English. (The scene, which is at least half in French, entertained even me, and I don’t speak a word of the language.) Many of the smaller roles in the show were double cast, and actors like Alex Carrigan ’25 and Manny Jacobson ’26 were able to successfully play not just one, but several roles.
Henry V is a war play, but it wasn’t the highly choreographed fight scenes that stuck with me. Instead it was Pistol’s face after he kills his prisoner — and Henry’s face at the start of the battle, as his troops have taken up fighting and he stands alone at the top of the stage waiting for an opponent. The fight scenes were precise, but the emotional depth the actors were able to plumb was what really impressed me.
If the actors were the star of the show, the set was a close second. Three large set pieces filled the stage, each barebones scaffolding made of planks with multiple platforms of varying heights and stairs coming up from different directions. The tallest set piece had a ladder up to the third story platform. These pieces, each on wheels, could be reorganized and spun around, transforming the stage from scene to scene and act to act — with a little imagination (as is called for in the narrator’s opening speech), it was easy to see a throne room, then a tavern, then a ship and finally the battlefields of France. Leaving the theater that night, I was struck that Henry V is certainly one of the best shows I’ve seen in my time at Kenyon.