Nicole Leach and Liev Schreiber in Henry V
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Nicole Leach and Liev Schreiber in Henry V
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
If Liev Schreiber were running for King, I'd vote for him. With his grave tones and serious expression, he is a gentle and thoughtful monarch on the throne and a brave and compassionate leader in battle. And he's brilliantly photogenic. Mark Wing-Davey, director of the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry V, doesn't let us forget this, sending paparazzi around to snap shots of King Schreiber as he urges his men "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!"

Ah, photographers, you say. So this is a modernized version of the great Shakespearean history play? Yes, I suppose it is -- though exactly what point of modernity Wing-Davey has chosen is anybody's guess. Henry V is Shakespeare's take on how England's celebrated king claimed and won the French throne in a hard campaign that had its climax at the Battle of Agincourt, a David-and-Goliath fight from which England somehow emerged with barely a scratch. The play is often dressed up in the clothes of other wars; for example, the Jean Cocteau Rep recently gave it a Vietnamese spin. But while Wing-Davey's interpretation is relatively free of such shoe-horning, his vision is rather confusing.

The cast first enters in Elizabethan dress, which is shed during the Chorus's prologue. Then the English nobles -- including Henry -- enter in dark business suits, while their French counterparts wear white garb of an indeterminate nature. The English military uniforms look like they might be from one or both of the World Wars, but who knows? Meanwhile, Henry's old drinking buddy Pistol, who is meant to represent Joe Englishman being sent off to fight in France, makes his first entrance in a tacky white tux and bouffant hairdo straight out of the '50s, sporting a weird, outer-borough accent. His new bride, Mistress Quickly, also has a pronounced accent and an attitude to match. Though actual textual changes to the play are minor, some are very odd indeed: e.g., the cantankerous Irish Captain MacMorris becomes the Jamaican Captain Morris. It's surprising indeed to hear a Shakespearean character utter the word "Jamaican," but Mark Gerald Douglas is terrific in the part. Oh, and the French soldiers' horses -- played by men disturbingly costumed by Gabriel Berry -- have to be seen to be believed.

This patchwork of ideas and styles, underscored by John Gromada's inconsistent soundtrack that features heavy metal during battle scenes and more traditional music elsewhere, is eyebrow-raising at best, jarring at worst. But maybe there is some method to Wing-Davey's madness. He gets more laughs out of the scenes with Pistol and Quickly (and their pals Bardolph and Nym) than most directors; even that odd little bit where Captain Fluellen forces Pistol to eat a leek is hysterically funny. Wing-Davey also smartly handles the play's notoriously difficult opening scenes -- in which the Church bishops explain why Henry can and should war with France -- by handing out dialogue to multiple characters in the first one and using brightly-colored maps and charts in the second. Here and in a much later scene where the French nobles discuss at length the merits of their horses, the director shows that these sequences do not need to be trimmed, as they often are, and that they are actually much more effective (and funny) in their entirety.

But it is the simpler moments that work best in this production. Night having settled on the open-air Delacorte Theater and Mark Wendland's sets (sometimes effective, sometimes distracting), King Henry emerges to wish his soldiers well on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt and finds unrest among his men. Schreiber beautifully handles the "Upon the King" speech in which Henry talks bitterly of the responsibilities of being a monarch and prays that God will make his men ready for the bloodshed ahead. The final wooing scene between Henry and the French princess Katherine is also a highlight, with Nicole Leach giving the princess a gentle integrity.

Liev Schreiber and the cast of Henry V(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Liev Schreiber and the cast of Henry V
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
The cast doesn't sport the "big names" of the last few NYSF productions, yet it is quite strong. Adam Dannheisser is fine French Constable and Ryan Shively manages to be amusing as the hotheaded Dauphin without turning the character into a cartoon. David Costabile is excellent in his roles as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the French messenger Montjoy, while Dan Moran does a lovely turn as Nym. Bronson Pinchot's Pistol is broadly drawn but he sure does get laughs; the actor wisely avoids the temptation to make Pistol, who loses everyone he loves by play's end, a tragic figure, playing him instead like the wily survivor he is. Daniel Oreskes as the Duke of Exeter, Martin Rayner as the King of France and Captain Gower, and Orlando Pabotoy as Captain Jamy and a French soldier also make strong impressions. Peter Gerety is especially memorable as the Welsh Captain Fluellen -- and as the French Queen Isabel. (Why is a man playing the queen? Your guess is as good as mine.)

The production's big draw is Schreiber, as fine an actor as the New York stage can boast these days. His age is a little too advanced and his authority a little too sure for us to see evidence of Henry's wilder days, which are alluded to in the play (and dramatized in Shakespeare's Henry IV, to be seen later this season at Lincoln Center). The point that this war was to be the young king's proving ground does not come through very clearly, as Schreiber exudes an intelligence and command that makes him seem a seasoned leader. But one could not ask for better readings of Shakespeare's verse, and the Bard gave some of his greatest speeches to King Henry.

This production is puzzling; its playfulness is enjoyable but the unevenness of its style and tone hampers the play's narrative. Yet the work continues to astound with its unflinching look at the contradictions of war and warriors. It's fortunate that Wing-Davey has not skewed the text. This is not a pro-war Henry V (as was Olivier's in 1944) or an anti-war Henry V (as have been most productions since then). It is simply Henry V, an always-timely play about a young king who is assured and conflicted, humble and driven, compassionate and ruthless -- like so many great leaders past and present.