The major and most controversial production at this year’s Avignon theater festival (40 mainline shows, some 550 fringe events) was Shakespeare’s “Henry V, ” in a recent and excellent translation by Jean-Michel Deprats.
Never performed in France before, owing probably to its rampant Francophobia and also its peculiar position as a climactic coda to the two Henry IV plays, “Henry V” proved baffling to public and critics more accustomed to the Bard’s tragedies. The production by director Jean-Louis Benoit (also director of the Theatre de l’Aquarium in Paris, where the production moves in December after a fall tour of France) is both reverently close to the original text and to an Elizabethan style of staging.
Furnished with a multipurpose 10-foot-high castle that permits all sorts of clever exits and entrances, Benoit’s stage, within the Cour d’Honneur, the internal courtyard of Avignon’s 14th-century Papal Palace, was huger by far than the one Shakespeare wrote for. All 38 roles are played by only 15 actors, leaving no one free to embody anybody’s army, however small.
Consequently, many major soliloquies are delivered not to other characters but straight to the audience, stage front, from atop a circle of planks — literally the famous “Wooden O” described in the chorus’ prologue. The latter role is played with great vigor by a young actress, Laure Bonnet, looking for all the world like Saint Exupery’s tousle-haired Little Prince. Almost constantly onstage as both observer and commentator, she provides a vital and dynamic link between cast and audience and smoothes the choppy narrative progression of the scenes.
To render Henry’s maturation from drunken slob to responsible young monarch more readily comprehensible, Benoit has stitched in snippets of “Henry IV” featuring Falstaff and the prince. The interpolation is so seamless as to be virtually undetectable.
Philippe Torreton, a highly successful young male lead who recently left the Comedie Francaise, provides a masterful and virile performance as Henry V. He moves from being a detached and lucid participant in Falstaff’s debauchery to being a fiercely self-controlled dealer with the insolent French envoy who comes bearing tennis balls. Intent on invading France, he must first bring soul-searching judgment to bear on the three English traitors Cambridge, Grey and Scroop.
Torreton’s tone remains convincingly martial throughout, and one can only reproach him for not changing key to introduce a more interior mood during the campfire scenes. As a result (and also because of unimaginative staging) the production flags uncomfortably; the extraordinary English victory comes not so much as a climax as a relief.
Benoit pushes Henry’s last scene, the wooing of Princess Catherine, as far into comedy as it will go without actually collapsing in ridicule: Catherine, impishly acted by Marie Vialle, is a delightfully skittish and amusing foil to Torreton’s gruffness.
It is in his treatment of the low-life characters, Fluellen and company, that Benoit goes too far, choosing a knockabout style that drowns out the very pertinent comments on the idiocy of war being constantly made by that bunch of delinquents. The French court, cast by Shakespeare as precious and arrogant, gets even shorter shrift: The Dauphin is a mincing and vapid creature, his father Charles VI delightfully dotty and feeble-minded.
However, this production of “Henry V” — a difficult and highly courageous choice of play — features a good deal of great acting and tons of inventiveness.