It’s been more than 400 years since Shakespeare wrote about England’s ill-fated king, yet it’s still extraordinarily rare for an actress to play the role. As the assured and rash monarch, Zenzi Williams upends theatergoers’ expectations in director Robert O’Hara’s funny, shocking, slightly uneven Henry V produced by The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit.
The idea behind the Mobile Unit is to bring theater to areas that are usually deprived of it, like prisons, homeless shelters, libraries, schools and community centers, and their productions usually dispense with the trappings of Elizabethan theater. This Henry V follows that model, casting the play with only eight actors and setting the grand battle between France and England on a large rug no larger than 20 by 20 feet. The English flag makes up half of the rug while the French flag completes it, and they break diagonally. The simple set works for this shortened version of the Shakespeare play, with a run-time of only 1 hour and 45 minutes.
But within that short span of time, King Henry decides to invade France just because of a perceived insult. It’s unclear whether Williams is playing Henry as a man or a woman, and although the casting of an African-American actress is notable, Williams doesn’t make a big deal out of it. She lets her acting do all of the talking,making the viewer question the logic of always restricting this rich role to a man. Williams commands the stage, moving deliberately, speaking powerfully. Despite the petty reason for starting a bloody war, it’s tempting to rally around such a confident and inspiring leader. While Henry is preparing to rally the army, however, the casting becomes unclear; the actors wear the same black garb throughout the show, only changing red and blue accessories to designate that they are playing an English or a French person. This color coding is both extremely useful and a blissfully easy device for a Mobile production, but the switching is jarring until the English and French courts are firmly established. The ambassador to France (Patrice Johnson) is particularly memorable with her head held high, and the flourishes she makes with her blue scarf are fun and funny. Her character seems much more fully developed than those flying from one role to the next around her. In a particularly distracting transition, an English soldier (Joe Tapper) who misbehaved under King Henry’s eye turns into the King of France in less than 10 seconds. Director Robert O’Hara could have treated that a bit more gently. The whole premise of the Mobile Unit is to show people Shakespeare who don’t normally get to see Shakespeare. If your audience is trying to adjust to Shakespeare’s verse, pay attention to the action and try to decipher the thick French accents, they’re going to lose the thread of the story with transitions like this.
Director Robert O’Hara’s treatment of the French court is very heavy-handed. Poking fun at the French is still amusing centuries later, but the actors muddle Shakespeare’s verses with overdramatic French accents. It can be difficult to decipher what they’re saying, which can be frustrating when O’Hara’s production is flying at top speed from one scene to the next. With the exception of the French ambassador, they’re all caricatures. Joe Tapper does a fine job at playing the King of France, but the character seems very two-dimensional. He’s just arrogant and thinks France will be fine. His son (Michael Bradley Cohen) is even more of a caricature. He twitches his little royal blue handkerchief and is every inch the sniveling, greedy son. Cohen seems to have been given this direction to play everything very big. It doesn’t seem like overacting, because the rest of the cast is doing it in this small venue. I can see that this was a deliberate decision, which eventually pays off with one character is particular, but for the rest of the cast, it’s too much.
The French princess, Katherine (Carolyn Kettig), is thoroughly amusing as a young woman who begrudgingly learns English because her father is intending on offering her to Harry in marriage as a peace offering. Kettig’s smug, blasé demeanor generally works. She’s a good fit for the role and speaks her lines in French with confidence. Her attempts to learn how to say different body parts in English gets huge laughs from the audience. No one feels bad for her, her arrogant father or her wimpy and irritating brother. Let Henry come and take everything from them. For all of his faults, Henry is portrayed and believed to be the better option as the ruler of France. He has honor and principles. He might have a tiny problem with power, but that doesn’t really matter. The audience’s opinion of dear Harry shifts violently at the end of the show.
O’Hara’s interpretation of the ending of this Shakespeare play is jarring, in a good way. Henry is trying to woo Princess Katherine. She doesn’t understand English very well, but it’s clear that she doesn’t want to marry the man who just took over her country. In other Henry V adaptations, he wins her over. Instead, O’Hara’s Henry uses his battlefield tactics on Katherine. When she refuses to give him an answer, he slips his hand over her neck and squeezes. Williams plays this action with disturbing calmness, releasing Katherine’s throat and talking on in that same voice that rallied English troops as if nothing had happened. Tears stream down Katherine’s face as she tries to recover her breath. The smugness is gone and a trembling girl is left to marry a king who will get what he wants at any cost. It’s a powerful ending and a timely commentary on what admired male rulers turn out to be, and for that alone, it’s worth seeing.
Henry V runs to May 13, 2018. More production info can be found here.