War games

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 16, 2008

But that may be part and parcel of the troupe’s interpretation of the play, which eschews the patriotic glorification of soldiering central to Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film. Director Normi Noel views the play as a testament to what war requires its successful perpetrators to kill off in themselves — beginning with King Henry’s rejection, before the play begins, of his rascally chum of Henry IV, Parts One and Two, Sir John Falstaff. “The King has killed his heart,” opines Mistress Quickly in Henry V, not long before report that the fat knight, a famous debunker of battle worthiness, has actually departed this terrestrial flagon of sack. Thus Seth Powers, who plays the title character (as well as Bardolph and the Duke of Orleans), is a melancholy presence from the get-go, his bellowed military speeches at Harfleur and Agincourt filled with steely fervor but with a hint of tearfulness underneath.

It’s no wonder ASP thought Henry V apt to our time, what with its self-serving clergy opening the play with a convoluted justification for a war of aggression — the king’s invasion of France based on a claim to its throne “from the female.” The play’s war further echoes our current conflict by the role God plays in it, with a partisan Deity not only invoked with regularity but credited for the miraculous English victory at Agincourt, despite Henry’s troops being tired, sick, and vastly outnumbered. Whatever you make of the king’s claim, the play is filled not just with thrilling rhetoric but with chilling glimpses of the brutality and pettiness of war at all levels, whether Bardolph is getting himself hanged for robbing a Church, Pistol is planning to convert his cudgeling scars into war wounds, the furious king is ordering the murder of all the French prisoners (in retribution for the enemy’s slaughter of the boys guarding the English supplies), or a disguised Harry is subjecting his troops to a little touch of surveillance in the night.

The ASP five offer an intelligent rendering of the play — and, remarkably, it’s always clear who’s who. But with so many parts to undertake, none of the actors makes a vivid impression in any. Powers plays the king, for the most part, on one loud, bleating note, though he brings a boyish charm to his awkward wooing of Katherine, non-English-speaking daughter of the French king. Molly Schreiber, in turn, renders Katherine with a delightful mix of innocence and coquetry (and a much better accent than whatever it is Paula Langton applies to Welsh captain Fluellen). ASP stalwarts Cheeseman, Langton, and Doug Lockwood do yeoman work in as many as 10 roles! But what they conjure is more a muse of flicker than of fire.

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