Theater Review: “Henry V” at the Folger Theatre

Robert Richmond directs a thrilling, surprisingly funny production on Capitol Hill.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Both England and its special friend across the pond have always had something of a soft spot for a naughty Prince Harry. The Nazi uniform-wearing, inappropriate language-using, naked-in-Vegas version rides his polo pony on the cover of Town & Country this month as the most eligible bachelor in the world—his misadventures apparently only adding to his charm. At the Folger Theatre meanwhile, Zach Appelman’s strawberry-blond Henry V is so eloquent, so engaging, that it’s hard not to leave the theater thinking of him as one of the greatest male characters Shakespeare ever wrote.

Robert Richmond’s production, playing through March 3 at the Folger Library, is an outstanding interpretation of the fourth and final installment of the Henriad tetralogy, combining a raucously funny approach with a thoughtfulness about war and its legacy. Prince Hal, a layabout and gadfly who haunted the taverns of London with Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II, is now King Henry V, and while Appelman’s Henry still seems young enough to shave irregularly, his character takes ruling very seriously. A plot against his life by three noblemen is dealt with swiftly and aggressively, while a “gift” from France ridiculing his status as a leader results in a straightforward invasion.

As always, the Folger’s space is used creatively, and the set design by Tony Cisek is ambitious. Long wooden beams attached to ropes are raised and lowered from scene to scene, morphing from palace to ship to battleground with minimal interruption. It’s a deliberately sparse approach that allows the performances to resonate. Early on in act one, two actors enter on wooden “horses,” gymnasium-ready constructions that are unselfconsciously comical and accompanied by the clip-clopping of hooves. After the one-person chorus (Richard Sheridan Willis, who embodies multiple characters while acting as Henry’s antagonist) concludes his introduction, the company marches onstage together, emphasizing the military business that underpins the play.

Henry takes his newfound stature seriously, addressing a French lord who brings him a casket full of tennis balls with fearsome rage. But glimpses of Hal shine through, when the king cracks up with his friends and attempts to woo a French princess who speaks no English by raising the sound of his voice. This is a nuanced portrayal of a complex man who’s an excellent leader—a sympathetic tyrant who needlessly invades France and threatens to rape and murder its citizens, but who also walks in disguise among his troops to assess their morale. By revealing the king’s ability to laugh at his own stern affect, Richmond helps the audience see him as a more rounded and likable character still finding his feet as a leader.

The supporting cast are also excellent, from Chris Genebach’s noble Exeter to James Keegan’s tragic Pistol. Katie de Buys does double duty as the elegant Princess Katherine and a young boy in Falstaff’s duty who sheds real tears over his demise. Louis Butelli, a Folger staple, adopts a bulbous red nose to play the conniving drunk, Bardolph. And Richmond deftly flips three actors (Edward Christian, Pomme Koch, and Andrew Schwartz) from being English conspirators against Henry to playing French enemies, managing to recycle actors while enhancing our embattled perception of the play’s hero.

With such simple staging the battle scenes are more of a challenge, but Michael Rasbury’s sound design helps conjure a realistically bloody Battle of Agincourt, complete with a post-explosion ringing in the ears that feels more like The Hurt Locker than a history play. Despite the fact that this is such an aggressively male play (women really don’t do anything except speak French and—in the case of Mistress Quickly—die of venereal disease), Richmond seems eager to explore the emotional consequences of conflict. Henry’s agonizing over his troops and the responsibility he bears them is prolonged, and the death of one of his most loyal soldiers is deeply moving. Violence, whether inflicted by enemies with arrows or executioners with nooses, is never far away.

But it’s Richard Sheridan Willis’s presence as a dark-eyed enemy that most seems to emphasize the play’s seriousness, despite its bawdy and irrepressible humor (you may never want to eat leeks again). Unlike the musician (Jessica Witchger) whose semi-permanent presence hovering over scenes occasionally feels contrived, Willis haunts the stage like a mournful ghost when he isn’t acting as a solemn go-between. Henry’s calls to battle are so stirring that it’s hard to resist the impulse to defend England, but Richmond offers us a constant reminder that things are rarely so simple in love of war.

Henry V is at the Folger Theatre through March 3. Running time is about two hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($30 to $68) are available via the Folger’s website.