Henry V is Shakespeare's history of the young king who, told by his advisors that he has a valid claim to the throne of France, marches his men in to take it. The bloody and tiring journey weakens the English army and, once they reach the eve of their final battle, they are a small and beaten bunch of men. And yet, at the Battle of Agincourt, up against a French army vastly outnumbering their own, the English miraculously triumph, and with minimal casualties. Harry then woos the French princess and assumes the throne of France.
The Jean Cocteau Rep's choice to set all of this in the Vietnam Era is a little suspicious. You almost get the feeling that they just liked the idea of playing hits from the 60s and 70s in between scene changes. After all, how is the jungle warfare of Vietnam like the hand-to-hand combat of Henry? How is England's ancient land claim like the United States' hopeless campaign in Vietnam? Though the first scene reveals that, like Vietnam, Henry's war is a heavily political one, it is not until the third act that the setting and the play truly resonate. In a scene where the English army is in the midst of taking the town of Harfleur, Harry urges the soldiers "once more unto the breach," telling them to summon their strength as "the blast of war blows in your ears" -- in the background, machine guns fire and bombs explode. Then, in a startling moment, the king drags a French prisoner over, puts a gun to his head, and calls out to the governor of Harlfeur to give the town over. With the French soldier being played by Asian actor Brian Lee Hugnh, and the frightened governor wearing Vietnamese dress, the stage picture created in this scene looks like it's straight out of any of a dozen Vietnam war movies -- and certainly the nightmares of many a vet.
Unfortunately, moments like this are rare. But the fact is that Henry V could be set against the backdrop of any war and its principle points would still be understood. Though it has the look of a morale booster, with a good king and his army overcoming great odds, Shakespeare does not underestimate the terrible toll that war takes on this band of brothers. Soldiers Williams and Bates must wonder whether their souls are in jeopardy if the king is leading them into an unjust war. Pistol, an old friend of the king's, has to watch everyone he loves die around him. Harry himself discovers not only the great responsibility of his position, but the aching loneliness that also comes with it:
"What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what are thou, thou idol Ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do they worshippers?"
In Jason Crowl, the Jean Cocteau Rep has a gentle yet heroic king. Crowl has the look of a wise young man, and his weighty voice wraps itself nicely around the text. However, he rarely seizes on his character's juicier lines. Henry V is full of delicious moments, from Henry's warning to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of the play ("Take heed how you awake our sleeping sword of war ... For never two such kingdoms did contend without much fall of blood") to the inspiring "St. Crispin's Day" speech he delivers to his men before the Battle of Agincourt; yet Crowl tends to breeze through them, seldom biting into the Bard's words.
The English army's lovable rogues Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym provide many of the play's lighters moments and their players don't disappoint. Abe Goldfarb swaggers as Pistol, Christopher Black is a fine Bardolph, and Edward Griffin gives a touching performance as Nym. Strangely, Marlene May as Pistol's wife, Hostess Quickly, turns her moving speech about the death of Falstaff (one of Shakespeare's most beloved characters) into melodrama. But that is par for the course, as director David Fuller doesn't seem interested in making King Henry's "Prince Hal" days known, anyway. He never finds a way to explain that Falstaff, as well as Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and the Hostess, were Harry's drinking companions "in his wilder days." And, later in the play, the King barely even reacts to the news that Bardolph must be hanged for stealing.
May fares better when she is acting as maidservant to the French princess (Rebecca Robinson); the pair do an excellent job with a scene in which they communicate almost entirely en Francais. Sometimes good and sometimes not is Harris Berlinksky, who gives the French king ample dignity, but is tedious as the Chorus, augmenting his expressive voice with a distracting amount of unnecessary indicating; he also has a habit of delivering the character's monologues as though he were telling a bedtime story.
With a setting that distracts more from the story than adds to it (there is some serious overkill with the machine gun and lighting effects), and uneven performances, the Jean Cocteau Rep has staged only an adequate production of Henry V. But the play does remain powerful as a complex portrait of war and its many contradictions -- good kings fighting for bad causes, brave battles ending in terrible carnage -- and is itself something of a contradiction here, remaining a great play in a lackluster production.