Despite those rousing battlefield orations, and the martial pomp of the play he gives his name to, Shakespeare’s Henry V is not just a simple figure of British pride and pluck. He is really more slippery than most of the Bard’s title characters, little given to the kind of poetic, soul-opening soliloquies that give definitive shape to Shakespeare’s finest creations. A public figure rarely glimpsed in private, he remains a little aloof and elusive. Henry is, in fact, an ideal role for Liev Schreiber, an actor who often has the cool mien of a man meditating on some secret grief or offense. Schreiber’s smooth and layered approach to this subtly inflected role is the reason to see the Public Theater’s busy but somewhat aimless new production in Central Park.
Thanks to that famous “band of brothers” speech and the Olivier and Kenneth Branagh pictures, Shakespeare’s Henry has become a symbol of fortitude and courageous leadership, but he is in fact more reactive than active. It’s the circumstances of the moment, and the demands of his public role, that seem to determine his responses, rather than any deep conviction. He commits to war when angered by a French insult and manipulated by a pair of wily logicians from the Church. At one moment freely admitting his troops’ disarray to an embassy from the French, he is next giving a fiery oration celebrating the fame and glory he and his men are sure to win.
Merciless in one scene, guilt-ridden and pious the next, self-assured on the field and awkward when wooing a lady, he is ever mutable. Schreiber gives each scene its authentic note, resulting in a portrait of innumerable dimensions that keeps retreating from the easy poses of propaganda-poster heroism, even as he gives full due to the rousing colors of those famous exhortations to heroism. A certain cool gravity — and the actor’s naturally fluid and intelligent grasp of Shakespeare’s language — provides a continuous note. Schreiber’s Henry is always contained and slightly withdrawn. Only Henry’s bitter speech about the burdens of his life and his guilt-plagued prayer on the eve of battle are set apart: These are the moments when Henry’s interior life is most clearly exposed, and Schreiber allows us a glimpse of the angst and anguish underneath the armor of Henry’s public persona.
Like the title character, this episodic play has all sorts of dimensions, and director Mark Wing-Davey works hard to exploit many of them. Mark Wendland’s peculiar set features rows of dainty gilt banquet chairs arranged in rows on a wooden stage littered with sandbags that mimics the Delacorte auditorium itself. The image emphasizes the pageant-like aspects of the play, and the centrality of Henry’s role as a public figure who is almost always onstage, playing either the diplomat or the warrior. Aside from a few flashbulbs going off and a pair of massive posters advertising the king’s achievements, however, this idea of Henry’s life — and the war — as a public performance is only fitfully explored. The chairs are mostly a burdensome impediment to the action — they are continually being knocked about and rearranged, distractingly, as the play flits from battlefield to court.
Or boardroom: The production is ostensibly set sometime in the 20th century (the quiff of Bronson Pinchot’s Teddy-boy Pistol suggests the 1950s), but the updating is haphazard and inconsistent: Guns, swords and even arrows make appearances, and at one point a warrior in distinctly medieval garb lurches around the auditorium. This is a tired way of pointing up the usual ever-relevant lessons about the gruesome eternities of war, which are perfunctorily underscored here by having the traitorous British and the French prisoners of war executed within view of the audience.
The antics of Pistol and Bardolph (Tom Alan Robbins), the former confreres of Henry’s childhood companion, the departed Falstaff, are performed with cartoonish exuberance, particularly by Pinchot, who ad-libs a fair portion of his dialogue to general delight. Mercedes Herrero makes a grotesque Nell Quickly of New Jersey, in a hilariously padded wedding gown. But the broad tone somewhat mutes Shakespeare’s use of these unsavory and mercenary characters as a darkly ironic counterpoint to the heroism he extols elsewhere.
Similarly, the buffoonery of the French court and nobles is exaggerated to the point of pure silliness; with these fellows in the field, the British would hardly need to have God on their side, as Henry claims they do, to defeat their foes in such preposterous numbers. Clad always in battle-inappropriate whites, apparently permanently ensconced on the Riviera, the French are mere figures of fun — the most crowd-pleasing bit of business has actors playing the French dukes’ horses, snorting and stamping away. Perhaps for economic reasons (there are few females in the cast), Queen Isabel is played by a man, Peter Gerety, resulting in some more unavoidable if not quite intentional mirth. (What’s Margaret Rutherford doing on the French throne?)
In fact Gerety distinguishes himself in several roles, and the production’s supporting cast is stronger than is often the case with the Public’s Shakespeare-in-the-park productions. Gerety’s colorful Fluellen, Martin Rayner as a weary and dignified French king and Daniel Oreskes’ stolid Duke of Exeter deserve singling out. Steven Rattazzi, once he’s reined in a tendency to bellow in the production’s opening moments, keeps us intelligibly apprised of the to-ings and fro-ings as the Chorus.
It is unusual for Shakespeare to employ such a narrator so bluntly or consistently, and it indicates what sets “Henry V” apart from most of his other history plays. The play offers a wide-angle view of complicated events, from many different points of view (it’s easy to see why it’s been a favorite for filmmakers). It’s picture-book history, history as a series of events, not as an extension of or illumination of character, or a parable of human life, as it more commonly and provocatively is in Shakespeare.
Wing-Davey’s production, full of directorial touches as it is, doesn’t solve the problem of the play’s diffuseness and its multiplicity of perspectives. On the contrary, and despite a coolly charismatic performance in the dominant central role, it tends to magnify them.