Henry V offers a model of leadership in dramatic MSF production
CANTON, Mich.–What makes a good leader? Is it charisma? Is it the ability to motivate people? Is it fairness? Is it strict adherence to and respect for the rule of law?
All of those are questions raised by the production of Shakespeare’s The Life of King Henry the Fifth at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. It’s a play that promotes patriotism and that proffers the power of delivering a good speech and setting a good example. It shows a leader who must make difficult decisions and do difficult things. It presents a king who is aware of the heavy responsibility he bears for the lives and souls of the people he leads.
In the world we now inhabit, it is fitting to ask these questions about leadership and what we should expect from those who make decisions about the lives of others.
Directed by Janice L. Blixt, Henry V is filled with powerful imagery. She makes strong vocal choices in dividing the duties of the chorus, putting the lines into many mouths, underscoring the communal effect that one person’s decisions have. Everything is thoughtfully and intentionally staged. Blixt manifests her vision through both the choreography of the chorus and the carefully staged interactions of individuals.
Histories are frequently complex because they are filled with characters that the contemporary audience would have known without need for introduction. We Americans, on the other hand, are not so cozy with the lordly lines and houses of medieval England. It’s why Blixt’s choices in casting and staging are so important to making this play accessible. It becomes less important to remember every relationship and the position they held, and more important to be able to recognize whether they belong to royalty, nobility, the clergy or the commonfolk, and what that means as the story moves forward.
Perhaps the keystone of the play is the royalty, primarily the English king, though the French king, prince (aka the Dauphin), the princess and the queen play important roles as well.
It helps that Sam Hubbard is so charismatic and able to carry the day with seeming ease as the eponymous king. Young though he may be, Henry is determined to be as good of a king as he was a bounder in his youth. He owns the misdeeds of his younger days by neither excusing them nor letting them bar future glory. Hubbard moves and speaks with confidence, portraying a sense of ease and magnetism. His Henry seeks out information that can make him a better king and makes his proclamations with certainty.
His youth and charisma are in stark contrast to the frailty and age of the King of France, played with stern disapproval by Jonathan Wallace. Wallace presents him as a man with no patience for the flippancy of his son, The Dauphin. Victor Yang sneers and struts as the prince who has nothing but contempt for Henry and underestimates and mocks him. Wallace and Yang put the father-son pair at opposite ends of a spectrum, something that makes each of those scenes interesting and helps build up the tension between the warring factions.
Amongst the nobility, Demetria Thomas stands out as the Duke of Exeter, Henry’s uncle. She somberly carries the mantle of a loyal elder, determined to see the success of his nephew. Thomas doubles as Mistress Quickly, a role to which she brings both an energetic playfulness and a sobering foreshadowing of what will become of the merry group of fools that were once Henry’s companions.
Wallace, the French King, also plays the part of Pistol, the commoner who marries Mistress Quickly and was once in the company of Falstaff in Henry’s younger days. He does a great job of creating two distinct characters, as different as can be—sometimes making the change from one to the other without leaving the stage. He made the most of his height to create very different physical appearances, primarily through the use of his legs—the king stood tall and straight, Pistol was crooked and akimbo. But it isn’t just his looks that make Pistol so engaging—it is the simmering anger, the disdain for convention and his determination to survive in a world that has little respect for him.
Daniel Millhouse is another who plays two very different characters. As the Constable of France, his respect for the enemy casts him as a contrast to the Dauphin. He is more careful and cunning, a fit leader to oppose Henry. All that composure is set aside when he becomes the red-nosed, drunken Bardolph, companion to Pistol and Nym. He manages to create a larger-than-life, merry drunkard who has an indifference to the law. While he seems to fulfill the purpose of comic relief, that is only one aspect of the character. His final word on stage manages to both break hearts and establish Henry as a true leader who is committed to the rule of law, no matter what the cost.
Impressively, there were no weak links in this cast of 16. Each performed in harmony with the vision Blixt established and committed to a compelling performance whether they were taking on the role of a princess or a member of the chorus. It was an ensemble that understood the story they were telling and knew how to play each melodic strain to make the play sing in the hearts of the audience.
It’s often difficult to see the work of a stage manager—indeed, some might argue that if the job is done well, it is invisible. However, the staging of this production underlines the skill of Production Stage Manager Stefanie Din and her assistant stage managers Rebecca MacCreery, Jada McCarthy and Rylan Houle. They impressively kept costumes and props moving on and off the stage and ensured that the rhythm of the show never missed a beat.
Emily McConnell created costumes that did what needed to be done—set the play in 1415, created a visual difference between classes and countries, and allowed for quick on-stage changes. With so many characters to clothe, it is impressive that she did it so well and with very consistent looks.
Christopher Kriz’s music composition and sound design added a dramatic flair to the production from the moment the house lights first went down to the final curtain call. It lent an almost cinematic feel to “Henry V,” with a score that captured key emotional moments.
At a time when we are called upon to question what characteristics we expect a leader to have—and to closely examine what rhetoric rightly or wrongly inspires people to do—Henry V is a play that suggests one model while still keeping the answers to those questions open-ended.
Henry V will run July 31, Aug 3, 6, 12, 13, 18, 20 at The Village Theatre in Canton. Ticket information and purchases can be made at The Michigan Shakespeare Festival website here.