Hartford Stage’s current production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is audacious, original, yet slightly confusing. The casting of this show is extremely strong, with many standout performances, and director Elizabeth Williamson has certainly staged the show with a great deal of vigor. Unfortunately, since the production is staged in the round, there is very little scenery, per se, to signify the various locations in the play, rendering most of the scenes in the play to be undistinguishable from each other. Williamson has also taken a modern slant to the look of the play, in the fact that characters sometimes wear contemporary clothing, which doesn’t exactly help in specifying the time and period of Shakespeare’s play. Hartford Stage’s current production of “Henry V” is a noble try in choosing an extremely unusual way of staging this show, and there are definitely highlights throughout, but ultimately it doesn’t quite work.
In the synopsis in the program for the show, it details the battle between the English and the French, with the title character representing the English side. The Hartford Stage production differentiates soldiers from the two opposing countries by costuming (the costume designer is Beth Goldenberg), with the English wearing Army green and the French clad in blue. As it happens, this “Henry V” is staged with actors taking on multiple roles, including men playing women and women playing men. This all works nicely, up to a point. What gets confusing about this production is that some actors, who are playing multiple roles, have been cast as both English and French characters. Consequently, in one scene a performer will be dressed in a French army costume, and then, in the next scene, the performer will be wearing Army green and representing one of the English soldiers. This inconsistency eventually renders the show too often unclear.
Fortunately, the cast assembled for “Henry V” is very strong. Leading the cast, wonderfully, is Stephen Louis Grush, who plays the title role. Grush is extremely commanding and charismatic and it is entirely believable that he would govern a country. It should be mentioned that this actor is often seen wearing a tee-shirt and khakis, thus not really looking like part of the nobility. Still, Grush’s performance as Henry V is solid and, what’s more, he is surrounded by excellent performers.
Also standing out is Peter Francis James, who acts as narrator throughout the show. He is a most welcome presence onstage and he plays his role with great authority. Miles Anderson is good as both Bishop of Ely and Pistol, and Baron Vaughn steals scenes as Anderson’s wife, Nell, early in the show, and then is quite fine as Captain Fluellen. Anthony Michael Lopez is pretty amazing in three vastly different roles and Karen Aldridge also makes quite an impression as Duke of Exeter. Finally, Evelyn Spahr is exquisite as Katherine, particularly in the final scene in the show, opposite Stephen Louis Grush’s Henry V.
It is notable that this concluding scene is so memorable, simply because it is one truly lucid moment in the production, when it is completely clear exactly who everyone is onstage. If only the entire show elicited the same clarity. As mentioned, the scenic design (by Nick Vaughan) is pretty minimal, mostly consisting of some set pieces that are carried on by the actors, and the costume design is, at times, inconsistent. The lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge, however, is great and sound designer Matt Hubbs deserves a lot of credit in making the battle scenes so effective.
It’s a shame that this “Henry V” at Hartford Stage is such a mixed bag of a production, because, when it works, the show is quite powerful. Too often, though, everything gets a bit muddled and one is left wondering which characters the actors are playing, and, more crucially, which side of the war they are on. It should be noted, however, that the gender-blind casting, in of itself, is extremely good. Director Elizabeth Williamson certainly displays her own take on “Henry V,” with the bold choice to stage the show in the round, but, ultimately, some of the other choices made for this production render the play more than a bit confusing.
“Henry V” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through November 11, 2018. For tickets please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: Stephen Louis Grush (center) and company
Photo by T. Charles Erickson