Any production of Shakespeare is likely to be complex; the language and the number of players alone make his plays complicated. Judith Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V attempted to boil Henry down to the essentials, without losing any of the language; but unfortunately, the simplicity of the production could not support the intricacies of the play.
Henry V is part of Shakespeare’s history cycle, beginning with Richard II, continuing to both parts of Henry IV and three parts of Henry VI, and ending with Richard III (all of which, incidentally, Judith Shakespeare intends to present). In Henry V, the young Henry is intent upon recapturing the portions of France his great-grandfather, Edward III, let slip away. Henry is viewed as "a rowdy and dissolute youth," the 15th-century frat boy who lives only to party. The French are sure that he will not be able to achieve military victory, given his youth and inexperience (and partying reputation), but Henry, with a stirring and memorable speech, leads a group of tired English soldiers to victory at Agincourt against incredible odds. He even gets to marry the French princess.
Judith Shakespeare Company, as with all of their productions, reverse-cast the principal roles. Henry was played (beautifully, it might be added) by Laurie Bannister-Colon; Princess Katherine, by Grant Mudge. It’s an interesting twist on power and royalty, to see a court of women tackle palace intrigues and military strategy. But the production didn’t do justice to the concept. Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V is thick with subplots, moments of comic relief, and incidental characters. Judith Shakespeare Company chose to do the play as a staged reading; everyone dressed in black street clothes, eschewed props, and read from a script. Which is all very well and good, but Shakespeare cannot breathe under such a static portrayal. They should have cut the play down, and drastically; three-and-a-half hours of Henry can be trying under normal circumstances, but is excruciating when the actors are reading from a script. Additionally, it was difficult to find the point of the role-reversal. The lovely twist of women in power bogged down under the subplots. Cutting out the extraneous characters and scenes would have highlighted their dramaturgical theme, and made the staged reading easier to bear.
Nevertheless, the acting was marvelous, even with scripts. The immense cast worked well together, and the direction (such as it was) showed talent and economy of movement, together with ample research and language work. Judith Shakespeare Company clearly has the talent necessary for a full production; hopefully their next production will not be "Shakespeare Unplugged."
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Copyright 2002 Jade Esteban Estrada