Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of “Henry V” is everything we’ve been waiting for. This performance is power-packed with intrigue, emotion, blood, battle and politics. If you’ve missed the earlier plays in the tetralogy, no matter, because “Henry V” stands surely on its own.
Before “Henry V” begins, singular players push a massive industrial structure counterclockwise, moving the setting into the past, into England’s Hundred Years’ War with France.
There’s an unusual and significant prologue to “Henry V,” where the ensemble steps out of the audience and onto the floor. Lighting is bright and the chorus is one, then many. They advise us to imagine that of which they speak: horses and fields, scaffolds and walls. And with this warning, the stage falls away to reveal Henry V’s court, the muddy fields south of Calais and the Battle of Agincourt.
We’ll see this fourth wall technique, unusual in Shakespeare’s plays, throughout “Henry V” when the chorus moves the play to a new location or moves the audience through the passage of time. And then the chorus quickly transforms itself into their character roles with adaptive clothing, hats or gold-shot cloths.
It was Richard Burton who first played all three Henrys in 1951 and, consistent with that tradition, OSF's Daniel Jose Molina has played Falstaff’s Hal, his fellow’s Prince Harry and now, after the death of his father, as King Henry V of England. Molina was a boy and is now a man, with the weight of his nation on his shoulders and the nattering of many voices in his court.
The court voices banter military strategies and security concerns, King Henry listening carefully. Molina’s leg jitters with nervousness, his hands clench and he strokes his narrow pate, now shorn of flowing locks. It is the Dauphin’s folly in this moment to taunt his cousin, the king of England, and King Henry’s ambition resolves. England will go to war with France.
Rosa Joshi debuts at OSF as director of “Henry V.” In an interview she says she loves “Game of Thrones,” a show that is packed with strategy and emotion. She’s directed “Henry V” with these ideas in mind and that of an uneasy tension between Henry V as king and as man. Molina executes Joshi’s intentions with extraordinary depth throughout the production, never losing nobility and rendering the craft of kingship that leadership demands. Molina’s King Henry V is the embodiment of leadership made more compelling in the moments when he walks in the dark taking the measure of his men or loses control, loses confidence, only to find the strength he must have to be king.
And Henry is king, but Molina is charming rather than clever in his wooing of Kate, the daughter of Charles VI, the King of France who is played by Rex Young. Molina plays this scene with awkward inexperience and desire, rather than the deft political maneuvering that a marriage of alliance between nations might be. These scenes, featuring Jessica Ko as Katherine and Michele Mais as Kate’s Lady in Waiting, are personal and intimate. This is Ko’s second OSF season, and her roles as Kate, Montjoy and Boy demonstrate the range and accessibility of her talent. Watch Ko’s performance closely and enjoy the detail of her work.
The killing scenes in “Henry V” are among the most violent and terrible that one might conceive; the imagination and involvement that Joshi asks of the audience is effortless. The small cast of 12 must portray thousands dead in the Battle of Agincourt and does so effectively with red clothing, red rags that symbolize wounds and bloody battle. The ever louder and harsher sounds of war, the aggressive physical movements of battle are suddenly stilled and silent as the cast freezes in position, limbs stiffened in extreme agonized poses and eyes tormented, staring. The symbolism of that momentary, stylized immobility is simply superb.
Molina and six other company performers — Michele Mais, Moses Villarama, Tyrone Wilson, Robert Vincent Frank, Jeremy Gallardo and Kimberly Scott — are veterans of the earlier Henrys, and Tyrone Wilson was also cast in "Richard II," the first in the tetralogy. The continuity lends texture and richness because the actors know the context of the play so well and give a fluid, technical distinction to performances in multiple roles.
While many of the company were cast in Shakespeare’s earlier history plays, there’s an all-new creative team for “Henry V,” and Richard L. Hay’s hand is evident. The set is entirely composed of rectangular blocks that serve as throne, seating, fortifications, battalions and luggage, and in the end, caskets for the dead and a table for wooing and treaties. The use of this singular form is inventive, ingenious and dreadful indeed.
The notion that a king must lead his nation is fundamental to “Henry V” and is at the heart of this production. King Henry’s every action as king, his every word, is public and Molina executes these with the conscious gravity the role requires. King Henry never, ever forgets his obligation to his nation, his people. In her shaping of this idea, Joshi reminds us that this sense of duty is essential in every leader.
“Henry V” runs through Oct. 27 in the Thomas Theatre with a sign-interpreted performance on Sept. 15. The show runs approximately 2 hours 35 minutes, including one intermission. For more information, visit www.OSFAshland.org.
— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland, and can be reached at email@example.com.