“O, for a muse of fire that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention!” – Henry V at the Folger Theatre
Little did I know , I was in for a unique experience….
The first half of the play proceeded nicely. Henry V was being forcefully portrayed, although the actor did not resemble Zach Appelman, as he appeared on the cover of the program. The stage set was impressive; it featured several large wooden beams (or beams that seemed to be of wood). These were alternately raised and lowered at different times during the play. One reviewer expressed some puzzlement concerning this use of the device. It did seem somewhat arbitrary; yet basically it worked, especially when shipboard experience was being evoked. The lighting and the sound effects were both artfully deployed. This is something you can depend on in a Folger production.
For me, the most resonant part of the play’s first half was the description of the death of Falstaff. Here are Bardolph, Pistol, and Mistress Quickly, all holdovers from the Henry IV plays. Mistress Quickly was a witness to Falstaff’s passing:
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve
and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after
I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with
flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew
there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as
a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields.
But I also love the prologue, delivered by the ‘Chorus’ – actually, a solitary individual on stage, whose office it is to set the stage. Longing for “a muse of fire,” he entreat the playgoers to use their imaginations and conjure the scenes in their own minds as the drama unfolds:
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:
Intermission went by swiftly. I bolted through the long gallery where the special exhibitions are showcased. I barely had time to register the current one, which is entitled “Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland.” But my friend and fellow playgoer Nancy made sure that I saw a newly authenticated painting of Queen Elizabeth I. It seems that this portrait had been hanging for some fifty years in the gatehouse of the Elizabethan Gardens on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
Thanks, Nancy – I might have missed that painting, intent as I was on gaining the gift shop!
So: we’re back in the theatre proper for the second half of the performance. I’m pumped – for now we’re going to hear King Henry deliver one of Shakespeare’s oratorical masterpieces: the great Saint Crispin’s Day speech. But hold – what’s this? Henry V doth stride upon the stage….CLUTCHING THE SCRIPT!! Yes – he has in his hand a spiral notebook from which he gleans his lines, one by one. For sure, he delivers them with conviction. But the constant need to consult the text in his hand certainly does away with the illusion of spontaneity. Also, it was just plain distracting.
All became clear at the play’s conclusion. It seems that Zach Appelman, the actor upon whom the Post reviewer had lavished such praise, had been taken ill during the previous evening’s performance. Andrew Schwartz, listed in the program as playing both the Dauphin and the Duke of Cambridge, had to take over. Thrust suddenly into the starring role, Schwartz had apparently not had time to memorize all his lines. Yet another actor took over Schwartz’s other roles. And the program gives the name of yet another actor – Louis Butelli – as the designated understudy of Zach Appelman. Rather confusing – a regular comedy of errors, if you will.
When the cast took their final bows, Andrew Schwartz made a gesture of wiping the sweat from his brow. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,’ as Henry’s own father observed
So, were we still able to enjoy the play? Yes, despite this odd turn up. (Debbie, my other play going companion, did mention rather wistfully that it would have been great if Andrew Schwartz could have delivered the Saint Crispin’s Day speech from memory. One could not help but agree. And yet he really did a fine job, under the circumstances.)
Life long theater goer that I am, this was a first for me. (The blogger at Italics Are Mine attended the same performance I did and records his observations here.)
The Modern Library’s site has a wonderful feature called 100+ of the Best Books on Shakespeare. Also PBS is currently running a splendid series called Shakespeare Uncovered. One of the episodes, hosted by Jeremy Irons, is about the history plays Henry IV and Henry V.
Here are two of the twentieth century’s most famous depictions of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech delivered by Henry V to his men. They have heard that they will be greatly outnumbered by the enemy, and Henry must use every power he can command to instill courage in their hearts.
This is Laurence Olivier in the 1944 film:
This is Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 film:
Both very stirring, I’m sure you’ll agree. For me, Olivier’s version is somewhat more nuanced, and thus has a slight edge over Branagh’s.