By William Shakespeare
Directed by Carolyn Howarth
Starring Benjamin Bonenfant, Rene Thorton Jr., Phillip Nolan, and Sterling Street
Orlando Shakes • Orlando, Florida • January 18 – February 5, 2023
by Carl F. Gauze
Ah, Shakespeare! A never-ending source of salacious violence, men in doublets, and complicated plot points. And Henry V is one of his easiest pieces, a set up and knockdown battle in the War of the Roses.
The War of the Roses was a civil way to tear England apart for several hundred years, pitting brother against brother, propelled by who, exactly, was entitled to be king. France was deeply involved, as the clear distinction between the two powers we see today was, in those days, a loosely-joined family affair with power oscillating between both sides of the Channel. Today we fight these issues in the courts, but back then, it was knives and spears and brother vs. brother. Thank God it was all fought with arrows and spears — think how brutal this would have been with gunpowder in the mix.
On one hand, you have Henry (Bonenfant), an English warrior with experience, beating up the Welshmen to his west. Against him was the young and supercilious French king Dauphin (Nolan). All this blood and fury comes to a head when Henry invades France with a rather smallish contingent of warriors. Here he takes up a defensive position at a town called “Encouraging.” The battle was a rout of the French, mostly due to their heavy armor bogging them down in the mud and poor communication causing Henry’s army to overrun itself.
The battle was pivotal, and this is one of Shaker’s best military plays: the motivations are clear, the battle lines straightforward, and the results pivotal. Director Howarth sets the tension early and clearly. Positions are immovable, and when the Dauphin sends a case of tennis balls to Henry, he implies Henry is not a warrior, just a supercilious poseur. Henry is suitably offended, and also a battle-hardened warrior with troops that stand behind him. A quick boat ride, and it’s off to battle.
A relatively straightforward set allows the cast to run and brandish at will, and dark, moody lighting infuses an ominous overtone. When they are not brandishing or beheading, there’s a wonderful supporting cast here. Nolan’s French king takes the biggest fall; his invasion turns to a rout and it would be a century before France tried another ill-advised invasion. Comic riffs come from the likes of Brandon Roberts as Bardolph, Anne Herring as the barmaid Hostess Quickly, and Chris Lindsay as Exeter. The set is dark and spare, an upper level gives the cast somewhere to run to when soliloquizing, and we have just enough swordplay to make this a genuine Shakespeare show with little risk of actual eyes getting poked out.
This show last appeared on the Orlando Shakes stage in 2015, and this time they’ve learned an important lesson: be careful with those tennis balls. You don’t want them rolling around the stage in the later battle scenes. That was funny, but not right away. Tonight, we only laugh on cue. ◼