It’s hard to miss the symbolism in Karen Tashjian’s set for the Shakespeare in Delaware Park production of “Henry V” opening Thursday night.
Streaks of blood-red paint stretch across jet-black walls and columns as if flicked from the paintbrush of some gargantuan Jackson Pollock. The set will serve as the backdrop for the bloody Battle of Agincourt, one of the most famous confrontations in military history, in which the English king leads his outnumbered army to victory over their heavily armored French opponents.
Shakespeare in Delaware Park founder and director Saul Elkin chose “Henry V,” which the company produced once before, in 1987, out of an affinity for Shakespeare’s English history plays and for its title character.
“I chose it really because I loved the ‘Henry IV’ plays that preceded it, and I had played Falstaff in both of them,” Elkin said on a recent afternoon in Delaware Park as actors prepared for the production’s first dress rehearsal. “I loved the idea of this young, profligate prince assuming the throne.”
The King Henry of this production, played by Patrick Moltane, is an older and wiser version of the irresponsible Prince Hal who appeared in the two “Henry IV” plays. His story speaks to the challenges of overcoming the errors and indiscretions of one’s youth, of taking up the mantle of responsibility and of growing into a better and more honorable human being.
“Henry V” has produced vastly different interpretations. In his 1944 film adaptation, Lawrence Olivier struck a deeply patriotic chord and, according to New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, served as “a celebration of monarchy as well as a reminder of Britain’s place on the European Continent.” Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film, by contrast, shied away from patriotic bluster to focus on the main character’s inner conflicts and has been viewed by some as a critique of English imperialism.
Elkin, for his part, is sticking with the traditional approach.
“I’m making a hero of him,” Elkin said. “I’m not going to deal with the imperialist notion.”
Though Elkin said he didn’t choose the play to mirror any contemporary issues, it’s not likely to escape most theatergoers that the production comes on the heels of the 70th anniversary of D-Day and at a time when a troubling military flare-up is unfolding in Iraq. Now more than usual, many Americans are preoccupied with the rhetoric of war as a glorious, patriotic or economically advantageous endeavor.
Some of the language we associate with valiant wars comes directly from “Henry V,” including the king’s insistence during the play’s first battle that his soldiers head “once more unto the breach.” Another pep talk before the play’s main battle contains Henry’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, in which he rallies his fellow soldiers by assuring them a place in history:
“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, / From this day to the ending of the world, / But we in it shall be remembered / We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Though Shakespeare wrote the play so the battles take place offstage, Elkin and fight choreographer Steve Vaughan have staged highly stylized battle scenes set to music and meant to work in concert with the stylized look of the set.
“We don’t have what Kenneth Branagh had. He hired the Yugoslav Army, or whatever,” Elkin said with a chuckle. “I don’t have that.”
Though he’s keeping the approach largely minimalist, actors playing English soldiers will wield actual longbows on loan from the Hawkeye Bowmen archery club in Marilla, while French soldiers will wear steel breastplates that costume designer Ken Shaw found online for about $40 each.
But in general, Elkin stressed, theatergoers should bring their imaginations to the production, which – aside from being significantly shorter – is presented in a spare manner meant to evoke its original production.
“ ‘Henry V’ is a chapter in English history that’s sort of complicated and it revolves around two famous battles in France. In Shakespeare’s day, obviously, there was no way to be literal about that and there is a chorus who keeps reminding us that this is a stage, use your imagination, think when we speak of horses that you see them and so on,” Elkin said. “What I did was reduce the possibility of any kind of literal theater. I tried, in a way, to make it a stage.”