This stripped-down staging of Shakespeare’s popular history succeeds in odd places. In director Davis McCallum’s hands, the most wonderful scene in “Henry V” isn’t the St. Crispin’s Day speech — drowned in lousy blocking — but the seduction of princess Katherine by the heroic Harry. The play is at its best when McCallum can find a laugh or two, and the scenes in France are all gold mines. In general, though, the helmer relies too much on the charm of his redoubtable lead actor and too little on the nuts and bolts of any Shakespeare production: clear language, clean blocking and cutting for pace.
That last requirement is a major loss for the young patrons of the New Victory Theater: McCallum has cut the young Talbot/old Talbot interplay that deepens the play’s kid-friendly fathers-and-sons theme. Instead, he’s meticulously preserved all of the scenes between Nym (Samuel Taylor), Pistol (Chris Thorn), Bardolph (Andy Grotelueschen) and Mistress Quickly (Georgia Cohen), billed here as “Hostess.” For middle-schoolers unfamiliar with “Henry IV” Parts I & II, the scenes are a probably a little confusing, to say the least.
Still, Matthew Amendt is a fine Harry, when he’s not doing a sorta-kinda English accent, and he nearly always makes good on the show’s thunderous oratory, even when he’s stuck up on a table behind a bunch of guys, talking about going to war. “Henry V,” after all, is a play about the monarch as Batman, and as the indestructible king cuts a bloody swath through his disrespectful French antagonists, it’s easy and fun to cheer him on.
Freddy Arsenault aids the cause by selling the arrogant Dauphin as an utter twit, one-upped at every turn by his bored soldiers. The scene in which he compares his horse to his mistress is a big hit with the school crowd that missed the Falstaff references earlier.
Neil Patel’s marvelous set isn’t used as much as it ought to be — the huge wall resembles a wooden cyclorama, with hand- and footholds leading up to second-story doors that make for a fantastic Battle of Harflew. When Harry shouts “Once more unto the breach!” while dangling from a little indentation on the wall, he brings on chills.
Costumer Anita Yavich has given the men asymmetrical leather-looking robes that display both a nice sense of design and a laudable lack of showboating. They look both cool and utilitarian. The women fare less well; they’re wearing long-sleeved, floor-hemmed dresses that don’t look terribly feminine, though Katherine (Kelley Curran) manages to look desirable in spite of her getup.
Originally co-produced by the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the show gives the impression McCallum would be better off directing comedy, or maybe deep, character-based drama like Chekhov. With “Henry V,” there’s just not enough attention paid to the play’s language, and early moments that should be expository end up played as comedy. A couple of times, the actors fall back on the “isn’t-it-funny-how-complicated-this-speech-is” routine that should set off alarm bells in any director’s head.
“Henry V” is a great play, and this production has illuminating moments, but at the end of the day, it’s overlong and doesn’t really belong at a kids’ theater. The New Vic deserves kudos for bringing Shakespeare to a young audience, but this may not have been the way to do it.