Henry, we’re not in the 14th century anymore

Feb. 28, 2014, 12:00 a.m.
Courtesy of Frank Chen.
Courtesy of Frank Chen.

The final installation in a tetralogy of monarchical histories, Henry V is the story of the young and mighty King Henry V of England and his efforts to conquer French lands at the bloody Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War. Sound like a history lesson?

It isn’t.

Stanford Shakespeare Company’s production dusts off the story and casts it anew. Under the direction of Louis McWilliams ’16, StanShakes modernizes the play dramatically (pun intended), by transforming the play from a 14th century power struggle to a story about the Vietnam War.

The move is clear from the opening moments of the show— before, even. In fact, fist-pumping tunes of Led Zeppelin and The Who set the stage while audience members file into their seats, and the backdrop of the stage, before any actors graced it, is a bare set of wooden platforms draped with an army green mesh. When actors do take the stage, soldiers don rock ’n’ roll T-shirts and roll bandanas atop their heads, Henry and his delegates wear suits, crisp trousers and ties instead of ruffled collars, and wartime longbows are replaced by handgun props. To top it off, real Vietnam war footage is played, wheeled in on a projector, in lieu of “fighting scenes.”

In this heavy reinterpretation, McWilliams encourages the audience not only to engage with the play, but also to identify with it. Because we (one can assume) identify more with Vietnam War than the Hundred Years War, we formulate more invested opinions about the play’s outcome with this identifiably modern take. When we watch British soldiers, portrayed as kids in cargo and dog-tags, shuffle off to battle, we feel for them because we can identify them as real. When we witness King Henry rally his men into war (“Once more onto the breach, dear friends, once more…”) and they subsequently march into danger, a surge of emotion grips us. Instead of feeling distanced by pantaloons and rapiers, we worry for these characters as if they were our own. Wait, we say, I know these men! Will they make it?

We feel this way about the British soldiers, and it offers a powerful effect. The production may have slightly undercut itself, however, in its portrayal of the French royal family. While actors playing the French felt real to a certain extent, there were many moments in which the French characters seem exaggerated, with excessive French accents, affected cigarette smoking and all-black outfits. It may be that these moments were meant to serve as some comedic relief, which is understandable: this is a production based on history, after all, and we need comedy now and again. Several scenes involving the delicate and childlike French princess, Katherine (played by Becca Gold ’15), were positively hilarious and rightly served to break up dramatic tensions of the plotline.

However, in making the French seem a little less “real” than the British in this play, some emotional impact was lost at the end. When the British decimate the French in battle, destroying them in catastrophic numbers, the French cry for mercy, but we cannot take them very seriously. A moment of empathy is lost, even in a time of loss and sorrow.

For the most part, however, the production avoids gimmicks by showcasing an impressive amount of raw acting talent. The audience delighted in a strong and nuanced interpretation of King Henry, as Kevin Heller ’16 turned from red-faced and shouting to dimpled and charming in a mere pivot-turn; Kevin Hurlbutt ’14 as the Chorus tied the entire production together through a command of verse, a creative interpretation of the text and a non-affected ease in nature that made him relatable in his direct audience addresses; Sunny Huang ’14, portraying the Hostess and Queen Isabel, meanwhile demonstrated the range of a professional and forced tears from every eye in the house in one heartbreaking look; and finally, the smart and talented ensemble performed with a conviction of truth fiercely felt.

The talented actors in this production made the Shakespearean verse clearer and more relatable than any translator could have— and that, one can argue, is the litmus test of a good Shakespearean production. A well-done piece.


Contact Katie Straub:  kcstraub “at” stanford.edu.

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