Henry V is unquestionably the most popular and widely performed of Shakespeare’s historical plays. On occasion, this produces a cheapening side-effect, à la Hamlet, in which certain lines and scenes become so ubiquitous that watching them fails to elicit any reaction beyond lukewarm recognition. Actors who play the role of Henry, not to mention the supporting cast of English and French knaves, poncy knights and lion-hearted barons, have their burdens doubled; what more is left to be said on the ultimate installment of the Henriad in a post-Kenneth Branagh world?
The cast and crew of the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s production, staged and performed in Ithaca’s own Hangar Theatre this February, are more than up to the challenge. It is abundantly clear, moreover, that they relished every second of creativity and dedication that went into the show’s production. For instance, all of the show’s costumes were handmade; the fleur-de-lis emblazoned shirts, chainmail coifs and elaborate courtly gowns of the French maidens paraded on stage are all proud products of Ithaca. The same care is given to the set. It is lovingly twisted this way and that as the show’s omniscient narrator, an almost unique role in all of Shakespeare’s oeuvre played by Annabelle Beaver, uses her impressive lung capacity to whisk the action from massed navies and sieges to quiet, poplar-lined French gardens. Every available inch of the Hangar Theatre is filled: the terrified inhabitants of Harfleur plead with the English from amongst the audience, and imaginary longbow fire from the gallery decimates a charge of French cavalry.
This same stage, more importantly, is populated by a wonderful array of characters whom the show’s cast brings admirably to life. Henry V, with the right supporting cast, is no dour epic of perfectly coiffured, monotone strongmen, but of people who are, frankly, often very stupid and very silly in all the right ways. Falstaff’s old hanger-ons, including Kyle Schantz-Hilton’s sleazeball Pistol and Eric Hambury’s unibrowed Nym, are sympathetic despite their flagrant moral failings. The hot-aired swagger of Will Wallace’s Dauphin is just as ridiculous as it should be, as are the absentminded fits of insanity suffered by David Romm’s King Charles VI. Particularly of note among the supporting cast is Jack Sherman as the Welsh captain Fluellen. His infatuation with Pompey the Great, puffed-out chest and unflagging pride in his idiosyncratic Welshness mark him as one of the most charismatic and genuinely funny presences in the cast.
This is, however, a play about a king: the king. His name dominates the title, and the play’s characters, in either their praise or terrified hatred, render him as something of a deified personification of wrath. As King Harry, Nick Shuhan’s performance becomes progressively more perceptive as the play carries on, balancing the rigid expectations of his court and the realities of his emotional life. In one scene, after brutally haranguing the beleaguered town of Harfleur to surrender, Henry, and the entire assembled English army, let out a collective sigh of exhaustion and slump to the ground, their weapons falling neglected to their sides. The charade of acting high and mighty is more stressful than it may seem.
In his conduct before his allies and his enemies, Henry must maintain an unflinching, lionlike demeanor, despite his very real fears and anguishes. This is a young man starved of his father’s love, undertaking a labor of Hercules. Nick Shuhan’s Henry is as personable, witty and loving as he is vulnerable. He claps arms with men of high and low rank. His nighttime foray into the plebeian ranks of his army is hardly motivated by a desire for praise: here, it is the act of a man seeking consolation. Henry is a soul in distress; he loses his stately equilibrium after the betrayal of close lordly officials and upon the massacre of the young English pages guarding the camp. The ISC’s version of the play sees the Dauphin die in revenge for the latter. It is the kindlier side of Henry that prevails the most upon the audience, however. He is unfailingly modest, and it’s his gentle, clumsy flirtation with Danielle Bates’ Katherine, the French princess, that ends the play. The play’s final image is of Henry standing with Katherine as she cradles their newborn son; after a destructive bloodbath, the end result is love and new life.
ISC’s Henry V is unique for this idiosyncratic optimism, which never comes from martial panegyric, but rather from the celebration of the humanity of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Moreover, the circumstances of the Ithaca Shakespeare Company add an undefinable, heartwarming edge to the play. The cast biographies paint a portrait of people who, despite diverse backgrounds, all are intimately tied to Ithaca. Some are still attending Cornell and Ithaca College and many others are repeat performers who return to the ISC out of a deep love for what it represents: homegrown Shakespeare, the annals of Franco-English royalty fitted out for a small stage in upstate New York. When the chorus appeals for the audience’s leniency and admits the inadequacy of any stage to represent the wondrous past, she may as well speak of the production itself. Its cast, crew and producers, like the characters they put in motion, are locked in a struggle against phenomenal odds. No show, perhaps, can ever truly capture that day in 1415, but they can try, and they’ll be damned if they don’t give it their marvelous all.
Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.