Perhaps more than any other Shakespeare play, “Henry V” calls great attention to the inherent limitations of the dramatic form. “Think when we talk of horses, that you see them … For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” the play’s prologue famously instructs its listeners, calling on the audience to contribute its powers of imagination as an essential element of the experience.
So, in the hands of talented actors and an inspired director and design team, “Henry V” is the perfect fodder for the sort of “Bare Bard” approach exhibited in the production at Shakespeare & Company running at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre until Aug. 23. Even if it’s not the adrenaline rush of Tina Packer’s similarly conceived “Julius Caesar” in the same space last season, director Jenna Ware does well with the challenge. She and her team deliver an amiable and accessible, if essentially mild, production.
Ryan Winkles leads a cast of eight, who work with little by way of set pieces and props, but plenty of some of the Bard’s most robust language about war, duty and destiny. (Govane Lohbauer’s costumes are highly functional, making for many an effective quick-change.)
Winkles is probably best-known in these parts for his prodigious skills as a comedian, in roles like Sir Andrew (“Twelfth Night”) and Flute (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), plus the multi-character hijinks called for in “Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” He’s also adept at stage combat, which makes this production’s lack of fights an even more surprising choice, given the material.
So it makes sense that he shines brightest in some of the play’s moments of levity, or when revealing the king’s strength through his sensitivity and even vulnerability. Winkles’ Henry is believably regal when attended by members of the court, but genuinely humbled by the awesome responsibility of leading a nation into war.
A scene late in the affair, when the English king woos the French princess, Katherine, can sometimes play as an incongruous postscript to all the battle-weary chest-thumping that precedes it. But here it makes perfect sense. This Henry is believable as a man who has mastered war but is a novice at courtship. (Caroline Calkins is just splendid as the French royal, struggling with her English but not too meek to play hard-to-get despite her lack of agency, as a prize-of-war whose marital future has already been decided by her father and her bridegroom-to-be.)
Winkles’ performance ties together the thematic threads woven into the deceptively straightforward text. In only a scene or two, Shakespeare goes from a full fanfare for the glories of war (most notably, of course, in the St. Crispin’s Day speech, delivered here by Winkles with great brio) to an uncommon sensitivity to the impact of battle on those who wage it. There are an unusual number of references to the destruction that will be wreaked on the common soldiers, their families and the villages and towns in which they live. If we’re tempted to forget all that when Henry rejoices that among the dead from one battle are “none of name,” we’re starkly reminded by an episode of smaller-scale butchery that vividly underlines the horror of war.
Still, the comedic moments have pride of place here. Though she’s not frequently given very much to work with, Jennie M. Jadow has emerged as one of the troupe’s great clowns. And David Joseph, who could coast by on his movie-star good looks, goes against type and proves himself an ingenious comedian, finding great moments both as the French Dauphin and as Nym, the barroom bawd. Sarah Jeanette Taylor displays a handy feel for the text, and Jonathan Croy, one of the Company’s interim artistic directors, is a good king of France.
Ware’s directing touch is seen most palpably in the show’s essential clarity, brisk pace and the handy way it breaks up some of the longer bits among several actors. She presents the climactic Battle of Agincourt as an abstract pantomime, one of several choices that give a sort of rounded-corner feeling to the whole.
Though this “Henry V” is a bit short on blood and guts, a poetic rendering of the aftermath of Agincourt — accompanied by liturgical choral singing — offers fresh evidence of the power of imagination over special effects.
Jeremy D. Goodwin contributes regularly to The Boston Globe, The ARTery (where he is also an editor), Berkshire Magazine and many other publications. See more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter here.