Think English history is dull? Get thee to the Grandel, where director Robin Weatherall has marshaled his troupe to victory. Henry V combines clear story-telling, finely staged comedy and compelling performances. This St. Louis Shakespeare production unfolds on a stage painted with a giant map of England and France, courtesy of scenic designer Patrick Huber. Shakespeare provides a guide to escort us to the various locations of the story, played here by the wide-eyed Elizabeth Birkenmeier, costumed (inexplicably) as a Catholic school-girl. Birkenmeiers excitement is contagious, and Weatherall wisely overlaps entrances and actions with her narration, helping the audience understand the complicated plot.
Its not necessary to have seen Henry IV, parts one and two, to appreciate Henry V. But if you have seen the tales of his madcap youth, it makes watching bad boy Hal transform into a worthy King even more satisfying. Youll also appreciate how Henry Vs monologue lamenting the weighty responsibilities of the crown echoes a similar speech made by his father in Henry IV, part two. The show-stealing character Falstaff, so prominent in Henry IV, is never seen in Henry V his death is reported early in the play, and by the storys end his exploits and name are barely remembered. Henry becomes a model leader, implementing what could be called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective English Kings: 1) Lead by example, 2) Get God (or least the Archbishops money) on your side, 3) Atone for the sins of your father, 4) Cry for fallen comrades, 5) Honor the dead (even if theyre French), 6) Deliver inspirational speeches, 7) Know how to win the girl even if you dont speak her language.
Andrew Michael Neiman, as the title character, anchors the show with his honest, detailed performance. His invigorating speeches to the soldiers are nicely contrasted by his heart-felt prayer to the God of battles. Kevin Beyer turns in two key performances, first as the Archbishop of Canterbury, slyly encouraging the King to claim the throne of France. Later, Beyer appears as stalwart Captain Fluellen, triumphing in a hilarious scene where he forces Pistol (Robert A. Mitchell) to eat a large leek. Byron Hotson is captivating as a boy serving Pistol his humorous help translating French for the English soldiers makes his death at the hands of the vain Dauphin (Dave Long) even more heart-breaking.
The two most engaging scenes in the production feature Lauren Dunagan as Princess Katherine of France. In the first, she gets a lesson in speaking English from her maid Alice (delightfully played by Marlene Velius). Even if you dont understand any French, the scene hits comic pay dirt as Alice mispronounces the names of various body parts, Katherine dutifully copies her mangled pronunciations. A bawdy twist at the end of the scene leaves the audience anxious to see these ladies again. When they return, its for the climax of the play. Henry has won the battle against the French army, but now needs to win the heart of the French Princess. Between her broken English and his halting French, communication is both tense and humorous. Neiman and Dunagan make the courtship believable and endearing; the scene builds nicely to a kiss, ending this history lesson with a spark of romance.
There are a few misses in the production: while the dialect work is very accurate, including Cockney, Irish, Welsh and fluent French, the actors playing the Irish soldiers talk too fast to be understood. In a play focused on battles, the stage combat is disappointing. It is ponderous and unfocused. While the ambient sound, designed by director Weatherall, contributes nicely to the mood of the play, other sound cues verge on the melodramatic. But these minor flaws dont overshadow the success of the production; its top notch work, bringing Shakespeares intriguing interpretations of these historical characters to life. Its a fabulous opening for St. Louis Shakespeares 21st season.