In The Round
Through November 11
The Hartford Stage
50 Church Street
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
As the Chorus (Peter Francis James) sets the scene at the opening of Shakespeare’s Henry V now playing at the Hartford Stage, the audience is reminded that what they are about to see is all illusion. He asks that those in the theater use their imagination in order to see the story about to unfold.
Director Elizabeth Williamson has chosen to set this production in the round with very few props and effects. Other than a couple of tables and chairs, a few guns and knives, costumes that are not period specific, subtle lighting, a minimum of sound effects, and a floor that has a map inlaid in it, the rest is left to the actors, the language, and yes, the imagination. And it is Shakespeare’s language in the hands of the actors that makes the story so vivid.
Peter Francis James fills the theater with anticipation with his exciting opening monologue that invites all who are there to participate in the events about to unfold. His rich and enthusiastic voice does indeed get the “imaginary forces” working. Throughout the play he returns to carry us along and set the upcoming scenes. It is a pleasure to listen to him.
Henry V is played by Stephen Louis Grush and he faces the challenge of reciting some of the Bard’s most rousing speeches, many of which will be familiar to the audience, such as The St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt. His battle cry (Once more unto the breech dear friends…) during the siege of Harfleur is somewhat drowned out by sound effects at first, which is odd since they are so little used, but is still rousing as the noise fades and the words are heard. Mr. Grush sometimes appears a bit uncomfortable but settles down as he allows the words to flow from his mouth. He will only get better during this run.
Miles Anderson as Pistol (he also plays the Bishop of Ely) almost steals the show and his interactions with Nym (Felicity Jones Latta), Bardolph (Liam Craig), and Fleuellen (Baron Vaughn) are comic and touching. The almost knife fight between Nym and Pistol is a memorable scene that had the audience laughing while it revealed the character of the two participants. Mr. Vaughn also takes on the part of Nell Quickly and is campy and quite funny.
Director Willamson’s decision to set this in the round was a wise choice as Henry V fits well into this setting. As the actors turn about the stage addressing each other, they are also speaking to the audience. It adds an intimacy that gives the work more emotional power.
Watching Katherine (Evelyn Spahr) practicing her English with Alice (Felicity Jones Latta) while moving about the stage is quite charming. Ms Spahr also plays Boy and Lord Scroop. Her Boy is innocent and yet insightful. Her Katherine is tender yet smart.
I feel I must mention Peter Francis James again. Mr. James’s Chorus paces his speeches perfectly and, without overreaching, brings a depth of excitement to the swelling scenes.
Now, since this is Henry V and we are asked to use our imagination, I beg to indulge for just a moment. During the Battle of Agincourt while the sound of machine guns were used for effect, my mind went to the swoosh of arrows being let loose from the long bows that were so effectively used to defeat the French. I think it would have been very effective here as well.
I make it a point to travel to the Hartford Stage each year to see their productions of the works of William Shakespeare. They are among the best staged anywhere. While this year’s work is a bit uneven, I thought the scenes in the French Court were stiff, it is still a worthy production not to be missed.
If you are among those who sometimes believe William Shakespeare wrote in a foreign language, lay your fears aside. While the text is untouched, the focus given the words and the clarity with which they are spoken here will leave you fully engaged. This is an excellent reason to make the trip to Hartford. You will leave the theatre feeling comfortable with the language of Shakespeare and glad you have seen these few, these happy few perform.
All photos by T. Charles Erickson