Henry V, directed by Christopher Luscombe for Chicago Shakespeare Theater in Chicago, Illinois. April 29 – June 15, 2014.
Reviewed by Regina Buccola
From the very beginning of Henry V, the Chorus serves a meta-theatrical function, not only bringing the audience up to speed on what has happened and forecasting the significant aspects of what is yet to happen, but also telling the audience how it will happen, theatrically. Or, in some instances, how it won’t happen: “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them…” (Chorus 26).
Christopher Luscombe’s decision to distribute the speeches of the Chorus across almost the entire cast of his production of Henry V for Chicago Shakespeare Theater was, therefore, a noteworthy approach to an already noteworthy aspect of the play itself. Luscombe essentially used the first Chorus, delivered by Samuel Taylor, to “teach” the audience how to receive these speeches. The lone instance in Luscombe’s production of a Chorus delivered by a cast member not in the ensuing scene, Taylor’s performance of the opening Chorus served to acclimate the audience to the concept of choral prologues to the play’s action. Subsequent Choruses were delivered by groups of actors; however, rather than delivering the lines chorally, as a group, each actor was assigned discreet bits of the Chorus before the Chorus itself melted into the scene it was introducing.
As an example, consider the Chorus to Act V of the play. In the testosterone-fest that is Henry V, Luscombe worked to give more stage time to Sally Wingert and Laura Rook, who portrayed Alice and Princess Katherine, respectively, by giving them the Chorus speech for Act 5, shifted to precede 5.2 rather than 5.1. After describing Henry’s triumphant return to England after Agincourt as the Chorus, Wingert and Rook took their places as the court assembled, transitioning from their shared role as Chorus to their individual roles as Alice and Katherine.
Alice and Katherine do not speak for 100 lines in the opening scene of Act 5; therefore, this transition was comprehensible in ways that the transition from Chorus to in-scene action was not, consistently, in other act-opening scenes as a function of this production choice. So, for example, the second Chorus was delivered by a group of four actors, who then transitioned directly into the scene they were introducing, the 2.2 confrontation between Henry and three of his nobles who have traitorously contracted with France to kill him. The Chorus here included Kevin Gudahl, who portrayed the Duke of Exeter. The effect was fascinating; when a knowing Chorus morphed into the group of nobles loyally backing Henry in his confrontation with his renegade courtiers, one got a sense of a young king still reliant on his uncles and elder statesmen for key support. All of them, together, caught Scrope, Cambridge, and Grey.
The sense of Luscombe’s Henry as an ingénueking was heightened by the youthful exuberance of the actor cast in the role, Harry Judge. Judge exuded charm, making the wooing scene with Katherine and the St. Crispin’s Day Speech his strong suits. I saw him perform twice, once at the beginning of the run, and once near the ending. He had an interesting, halting way of delivering his lines that made it seem he was never quite sure what he was going to say next. In preview week, it created the nerve-wracking sense that he was about to go up on his lines. By the end of the run, it more clearly read as the manner of a young king, feeling his way tentatively forward.
Kevin Depinet designed a sparse set for the production, leaning heavily on a few key stage elements to set each scene. The star performer in the set design was a massive wooden wall, positioned upstage center. A solid wooden slab positioned behind the massive throne in which a diminutive Henry perched to listen to the advice of his bishops in Act 1, it pivoted entirely around to offer a fleur-de-lis covered wall for scenes in the French court and, after a tremendous explosion, fell in slow motion to the right side of the stage, coming to rest at a sharp angle, to serve as a battle rampart for the siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt.
Theaters like Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Globe in Southwark and the recently remodeled Royal Shakespeare Company’s main house have adopted the thrust stage model used in Shakespeare’s Globe, in which the audience surrounds the actors on three sides. Luscombe, like most directors who work in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s courtyard-style theater, had actors enter through all of the aisles, and also made use of the gallery space for Henry’s rhetorical conquest of the Governor of Harfleur as well as for the Chorus preceding that confrontation.
Depinet angled the elevated stage thrust toward stage right, allowing for several entrances from under the stage into the area in front of the people seated in the front rows on the left and right sides of the stages. In addition to delivering the opening Chorus, Samuel Taylor also played an effete, broadly comic Dauphin and a begrimed and spluttering MacMorris, who tumbled out from under the stage as if fresh from his duties planting mines under enemy fortifications.
Another nod to early modern theatrical practice, Luscombe’s doubling of roles created interesting reverberations as, for example, when Sally Wingert metamorphosed from “quondam Quickly,” the hostess whose provision of divertissement keeps her in question for running a “bawdy house,” to Alice, the waiting woman who gives the French princess a double entendre-laden English lesson and serves as chaperone to Henry’s own instruction of Katherine in the tongue of the conqueror, capped with an enforced kiss. In the end, Luscombe’s production largely depicted Henry as a hero, but the deafening explosions, dirty faces and weary demeanors of his shivering soldiers, and the intense anxiety of his “capital demand,” Princess Katherine, tallied the high cost of his heroism for the audience.