The Shakespeare Society’s production of “Henry V” opened last Thursday, just two days after the election results. I do not think anyone expected the four-hundred-year-old play to be so topical before the beginning of this week, but watching a performance of what director Alison Balis ’17 describes in the playbill as “arguably one of the most brilliant pieces of nationalistic propaganda ever written” while the latest terrifying wave of nationalism sweeps our country was certainly an experience.
Written about 200 years after the time period in which it is set, the text of “Henry V” is unabashedly patriotic, painting England as the underdogs and France as the bumbling yet overpowering enemies. England wins the Battle of Agincourt through sheer heroism alone. The Shakes production plays with this idea, emphasizing the political climate in which it was written and the level of nuance that Shakespeare couldn’t freely write about.
Balis’ production likes to call attention to the fact that it is, in fact, a show. It starts downstairs in the Shakespeare Haus, where the one-person Chorus of Grace Owens ’19, who incidentally also did lighting design, greets us in an all-black outfit, which distinguishes her from the rest of the cast’s layers of period attire. After reciting the prologue, they lead us upstairs, where the minimal set serves as a contrast to the modern furnishing downstairs.
Colleen Sullivan’s Henry sells the dangers of nationalism and blind patriotism to the audience. She plays a subtle and restrained Henry, who spends a good part of the first act sitting on the throne, motionless except when delivering his lines. This restraint makes it all the more jarring when her voice sharply rises as she condemns traitors to death, or when a note of glee enters it as she announces that the English have killed eight thousand French knights. Unfortunately, the subtlety is lost in the soliloquies. Without the rest of the cast to play off, Sullivan’s Henry falls flat once or twice. Still, she more than makes up for it in the rest of the performance.
Despite the depressing real-world backdrop against which the cast was forced to work, some of the show’s greatest strengths come from its comedy. Madeleine Ferris ’19 steals the show as Fluellen, an officer in Henry’s army, with a lively Scottish accent that turned even dull speeches about the details of a battle into comedy bits.
In a particularly memorable and hilarious scene, the other actors onstage slowly slip from their natural speaking voices into matching accents as the scene progressed. I am not normally a fan of accent-based humor, but something about Ferris’ performance just works; it probably has something to do with the way that she and the rest of the cast play off each other.
The comedic segments ultimately outshine the more dramatic segments, but the remarkable thing was the number of scenes that converted from serious to comedic in the blink of an eye. I already mentioned the scenes where banter about battles turned into hilarity. It felt like every moment that could be played for laughs was, to great success. The scenes that were originally meant for comedy went just as well, and the cast plays up the more crass aspects of the writing in particular. It was a welcome break from everything that’s been going on this week.
If you have a spare evening this weekend, “Henry V” is definitely worth checking out. Even if you’re not a history or Shakespeare nut, the performance is still worth it. It might not be categorized as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but it does feature plenty of laughs, which, for many, have been in extremely short supply as of late. If you want an escape from current events by watching a display of centuries-old nationalism instead of modern nationalism, this is the play for you.
“Henry V” runs until the end of this weekend at the Shakespeare Society House, with showtimes Thursday, Nov. 17 through Saturday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 20 at 2 p.m.