In 2011, the Ohio Shakespeare Festival received a two-year Knight Arts grant for a project called Rare Works by Shakespeare, the goal of which was to stage “Love's Labour's Lost” and “The History of Richard III.” Since then, the Akron, Ohio-based company has continued to favor the Bard's lesser-known works. Its current production of “Henry V” marks the end of another two-year project to present overlooked Shakespeare plays to local audiences.
For those not familiar with “Henry V,” the title character essentially sums up the plot with this proclamation: “No King of England if not King of France.” Henry, played by actor Andrew Cruse for the Ohio Shakespeare Festival production of the drama, utters those words right as Henry is about to set sail from the English port of Southampton for France, with the idea of taking the throne of France as his own.
Henry has been urged to battle. The clergymen, in the play led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, comb through history to underline that Henry’s lineage (particularly from the days of Edward III) has the strongest of claims to the French crown. The clergy was so convinced that it promised to fund the expedition. The nobles supported war as well, arguing that Henry could take as vast an army as he could, while English leaders who remained behind would protect the homeland from the Scots to the north while he was gone.
Being convinced, Henry makes ready to go, but not before catching three English nobles who were plotting against him. In the scene in which Henry condemns them to death, Shakespeare dramatically shows that Henry is no longer the rapscallion and playboy that many thought him when he was crown prince. He exhibits himself as fulfilling his kingly role. To the captives he vows to “weep for thee,” but then calls them “English monsters” and has them done away with, as was his kingly duty to do.
Joe Pine and Andrew Cruse in Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry V.” Photo courtesy of Ohio Shakespeare Festival.
The French underestimate Henry as well because of his past. They undervalue the English too, calling them but mere beer drinkers while they elegantly drink wine. Cocksure of themselves, the French halfheartedly enter battle, only to resoundingly lose to Henry and his forces in the famous Battle of Agincourt.
In victory, and as spoils of war, Henry received acknowledgement as heir apparent to the French throne. He also fell in love with and married the French king’s daughter, Catherine, thereby historically merging the two countries again. From Henry and Catherine came the man who would become Henry VI.
Actor Andrew Cruse, during the performance that I saw opening weekend, was incredibly wonderful in the role of Henry. He fleshed out aspects of Henry’s character that are central to understanding the play–and that give dramatic interest to an audience. The conflict between being a man like any other, yet also being a king, got full play from Cruse in the scenes where Henry disguises himself so that he can talk to his soldiers in order to find out what they think of him. Cruse made the fragility of Henry apparent as the man struggled with the military battle before him.
The doubting man was contrasted with the character of the king, or commander-in-chief, who appeared the next morning to deliver the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, rousing the soldiers into battle. Cruse paced back and forth, alternately changing voice pitch and raising and lowering volume to culminate the speech in an amazing display of rectitude and leadership.
Cruse changed course again with the character in the charming scene where Henry woos Catherine (played by Tess Burgler). Cruse presented Henry as not so much the soldier and battle-hardened leader but instead a young schoolboy caught up in the first throes of love. Henry could speak a little French, Catherine a little English. So their merger by bantering back and forth in “Franglais” mirrored the political union when the two royals eventually married.
Scene from Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry V.” Photo by Roger Durbin.
Kudos also need to be given to actress Tracee Patterson. She played several parts–from one-liner characters to those with lengthy speeches and time on stage–but each as a completely but differently realized character. For one, she handled the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, urging through a lawyer-like intensity and stern manner the need to claim the throne. Immediately she switched to playing a nobleman. Then with a quick change of costume onstage, she became the Chorus (a character and device Shakespeare used to engage with the audience and provide needed stage direction). The role of Chorus was to let the audience know where the action was at the moment. Shakespeare, like the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, played without set changes. Scenes were left to the imagination and to the Bard’s wonderful imagistic poetry.
Patterson changed voice and dialect yet again and performed as first Nym (one of the not-so-swashbuckling low characters), and then with another quick costume change as an old man who, with creaking voice, gave Henry his cloak so Henry could be in disguise as he talked to his soldiers.
Later, in a complete shift of direction, she performed as Alice, the lady-in-waiting to Catherine. In that scene, she bantered easily in French and broken English to help to seal the deal between Henry and his future bride.
Patterson’s roles were all central to the main lines of the play. Indeed, the characters held the story up and brought the narrative along. However it was decided to put all these important but smaller roles together in the hands of one very capable actress, it was brilliant. Patterson was outstanding in each of her roles.
All the actors in Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s production of this play performed well. It’s a large cast, so it’s hard to mention a few and not the others. As an ensemble, they made “Henry V” vivid, compelling and wonderful to watch. Time seemed to fly through this two-and-a-half-hour production.
Director Terry Burgler made a good choice in taking the big battle scene off the stage. He used a grassy area next to the outdoor stage. The choice gave room for the scene to have great magnitude and noisy display.
Costumes by designer Marty LaConte and assistant Michael James were, to put an appropriate phrase to it, sumptuously done to the smallest details. Clothing can indeed define character, or at least it does in their hands.
Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry V” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 16 at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron. Tickets are available by calling 1-888-71-TICKETS or online.