Henry V is a big, sweeping play about political machinations, the forging of an English national identity and the moment when the young Prince Hal of the earlier Henry IV plays truly embraces the duties of kingship. It requires a huge cast, and a narrator to fill in the gaps between scenes, and even then several key pieces of the story occur offstage, leaving it to the actors to quickly explain what happened. There's quite a bit that can go wrong, but in the current St. Louis Shakespeare production, director Cameron Ulrich guides what appears to be 35 actors through this daunting dramatic minefield with few missteps.
The smoothness of our journey from England to France and back again (and again) is surely aided by the stalwart performance of Joshua Thomas. As our titular hero, Thomas maintains a quicksilver fluidity with the language that's matched by his regal mien. The play opens softly, with much discussion about the political necessity and plausible justification of invading France (where's Colin Powell when you need him?), but it gains momentum when the French hatch a plan to assassinate Henry via members of his own court. The king's newfound kingliness becomes as deadly as an executioner's ax as he dupes his would-be killers before they know he knows what they're plotting. The Earl of Cambridge (Nick Henderson) and Lord Scroop (Matthew Galbreath) fairly reek of terror as this grim, implacable Henry condemns them to death. Galbreath in particular sells the desperation of the moment, uttering through gritted teeth his monotone plea — "My lord. My lord. My lord..." — as he's dragged to the gallows.
Contrast this execution with that of Bardolph (Tim Callahan), an English soldier who steals from a French church during the eventual invasion. Henry, who palled (Hal'ed?) around with Bardolph back in the day ("the day" being Henry IV), could easily grant his old running buddy a reprieve, but in the name of maintaining military discipline, he does not. This bit of business could be a throwaway moment in a crowded play, but full credit to director and actor for giving it its due. Thomas winces visibly as he reluctantly tells his officer what must be done in service of the greater good. Along with Bardolph dies whatever remained of carefree Prince Hal, and in his stead stands King Henry.
And now Henry's famous St. Crispin's Day speech ("We few, we happy few...") has its proper context and portent. Hard choices have been made, a personal price paid, and now the king must rally his hopelessly outnumbered army to stand up to the French and likely pay the ultimate price. Ulrich stages the speech as an actual rally, as Henry begins by speaking only to a few officers, the power of his words then drawing his troops onstage, their faces brightening with hope and faith in their young king — it's a genuine goosebumps moment, as it should be. The effect is aided immeasurably by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley's ingenious costuming; each soldier is decked out in knitted chain mail that visually reads as the real deal.
But all is not strife and turmoil. Once the war is over, Henry must solidify his claim to the French throne by wedding Princess Katherine (Sabra Sellers). The bulk of Sellers' dialogue is in French, which she delivers convincingly and with comic timing despite the language barrier. As Thomas woos her with his own abysmal French, Sellers rolls her eyes in horror at his accent and then laughs at his syntax. Our man takes it in stride, his well-earned self-confidence charming rather than arrogant. That charm eventually wins Katherine over to his plan, as does his insistence that he'll break with French protocol and kiss her before the wedding, right here and now. Thomas and Sellers make that moment romantic and sweeping — so much so that one can almost believe in Shakespeare's myth of the great English lover. There may be little Hal left in the old bean after all.