For the first time in its 25 years, Shakespeare & Co. has staged “Henry V,” which joins “Macbeth” in the Founders’ Theater through Sept. 1. It isn’t as bad as the “Macbeth”; how could it be? But it’s still below-par Shakespeare and continues to suggest S&Co. has an enormous way to go before it begins to live up to its new Lenox campus and its first real theater, the Founders.
Having just 10 actors to perform “Henry V” is a problem to begin with, and a reading of the playbill makes it look as though many characters must have been excised. But that is not necessarily the case, as the company turns its hand to a multitude of roles, English, French and Welsh, high- and low-born. When the Archbishop of Canterbury is supposed to enter immediately following the Prologue, the actors look around the stage and out into the audience for him and then decide to dress up the straw soldier at center stage and have one of them pop his head up above it in an impersonation of the Archbishop. Similar expediencies follow.
The more or less set-less production opens with a child singing offstage; then a penny whistle is heard, then neighing. Allyn Burrows as Henry is revealed plunging his sword into the straw soldier (sculpted by Michael Melle) as a variety of voices urge him, “For God’s sake go not to these wars.” Eventually we get to Shakespeare’s opening “O for a muse of fire” Prologue.
The main directorial conceit of Jonathan Epstein is to turn the entire company into clowns. He does so by having them wear red noses on strings, which they don and doff throughout. In theory this aims to suggest that every human being, whether king or lowest of subjects, is a clown at times. In practice it’s meaningless.
Epstein also sees the play as “25 one-act plays that are connected thematically.” Yet in this production, scene after scene is incomprehensible and no theme is discernible. If Epstein wanted to suggest that war is just one big stupid messy boondoggle, he could be said to have succeeded.
There are some moments of relief, such as Ariel Bock as Mistress Quickly actually touching the emotions as she delivers her epitaph to the dead Falstaff. But they are far too few.
The title role is a demanding part that needs an actor of real stature and presence. Burrows does bring some physical glamour with him (he looks like Robert Redford), but he doesn’t have sufficient histrionic heft; at times his approach is too conversational, and his voice often sounds strained.
As is too often the case in Shakespearean productions, the comics are tiresome, though Tony Simotes’ Nym does have an amusing bantam-rooster cockiness. And, most unfortunately, far too many of the actors have been allowed to bellow, bluster and shout, to the great detriment of the text.
The charming English-lesson scene between French princess Katherine (Susanna Apgar) and her attendant Alice (Bock) is marred by too much physical business — the two women are on Melle’s sculptured half-horses carried by other cast members. There’s also too much clambering around and sliding down the theater’s scaffolding.
The costumes are a motley mix often taken out of onstage trunks, including outsize wigs for the French royals. For no good reason, Katherine is at one point seen in a ’50s cocktail dress and, finally, in what looks like a debutante’s ballgown.
The performance seen was astonishingly poorly attended. Let’s hope S&Co. heeds the warning.