UT’s production of Henry V: a visual and aural spectacle…with actors

By Alexander Rocha

It’s difficult to stage a play with extended battle sequences on a modest budget without looking like the Max Fischer Players. Accolades are due to director Scott Sherman and his technical staff for doing a superb job with this weekend’s run of Henry V (November 19-22, 8 p.m. in the Reynolds Club First Floor Theater).

Jeff Roudabush’s excellent set design—an abstract, multi-tiered rock formation—is visually striking, and its versatility (now casual seating, now the entrance to a catacomb, now a castle wall) sets the tone for a production that has to do a great deal with limited resources. Alainna Lynch’s costume design has the actors in non-descript modern clothing for both court and battle sequences; this Henry V doesn’t make an aggressive statement about temporal context, either period or hyper-modern. Rather, it puts the actors in a setting that is familiar to both the cast and the audience.

Keith Skretch’s sound design, to this end, is excellent. Ambient sound effects underscore many of the scenes, and the battlefield noises in particular do a great deal to aid the mood of the combat sequences. Skretch’s clever use of modern music isn’t as universally successful; sometimes the sudden entrance of a distorted guitar jars the audience out of its engagement with the show (the opposite issue hamstrung the use of the Velvet Underground song “Heroin”—sonically, it was perfect for the moment it accompanied, but I had a hard time forgetting what Lou Reed was singing about).

Given the constrained playing space in the First Floor Theater, much of the duty for creating diverse settings fell to the lights, and designer Pete Sloane was more than up to the challenge. Sloane’s design rarely called attention to itself, but it beautifully framed the actors, always served the play’s emotional context and sometimes worked to particularly striking effect (especially at the beginning of the show, when Henry stands backstage and is visible only in giant silhouette).

Sarah Fornace provided the excellent fight choreography. One of the highlights of the show was a fantastic quarter-staff duel between Fornace and Dan Kimmel, the show’s production manager/Tae Kwan Do enthusiast.

By its nature, Henry V is a challenging show because the title character occupies so much space and weight that even when he is offstage, most of the discussion revolves around him, and many characters seem to serve little purpose except to reflect (and reflect upon) Henry. Scott Sherman and his ensemble deserve admiration for easily conquering this challenge: the acting is quite good, and many of the characters linger as firmly in the memory as Henry himself. In particular, Oz Trammell, Christian Doll, and Drew Dir are superb in a comic scene Shakespeare originally wrote to be played by stereotypes of a Welshman, an Irishman, and a Scot, which Sherman and his actors transported to caricatures of a Southerner, a New Englander, and a Canadian.

Ashraf Safdar has undertaken a huge challenge with the role of Henry V, and it is unfortunate that his performance falters in its clarity. The meat of the show’s plot and action is imbedded in Henry’s character, and if his motivation and choices are unclear, so is Shakespeare’s play. In particular, the first scene with Henry is perplexing because he appears so unwilling to go to war; indeed, the interpretation presented seems to be that Henry was strong-armed into invading France by his advisors. While the script without question ascribes manipulative intent to the other members of the court, Henry’s hand-wringing reluctance strikes a false note, particularly as the subsequent action doesn’t display his character substantially changing. From the decision to invade France to his miraculous victory, Safdar’s Henry is hesitant to the point of being apologetic. The exception is his impassioned delivery of the famous “Once more into the breach” monologue, exhorting his soldiers onwards against great odds for the glory of God and England—but nested within the rest of his performance, this moment seems to come out of nowhere, and it doesn’t telegraph a shift in the character.

Classic interpretations of Henry V tend to view Henry as either a mature hero who has rejected his youthful life as a hedonistic wastrel, or as the violent and cruel extension of that character. That choice seems to hinge on the political agenda of the play; Shakespeare’s text is nuanced enough that the only certainty is his disdain for the French, who spend most of their time astonished at English mettle. The Bard’s position on the war itself is open to interpretation, and I was pleased to see that Sherman rejected such a facile choice in favor of allowing the script’s doubt come through, but Safdar’s Henry would perhaps have benefited from a more defined position. Neither certain of his position nor torn between possibilities, Henry is left looking mostly unhappy, and the show suffers consequently.