You always imagine your grounding in a particular work of Shakespeare is complete until you encounter another noteworthy example. Richmond, who tweaked for Folger the Bard’s cravenly political “Henry VIII” in 2010 and a year later explored the psyche of a charismatically sociopathic Iago in “Othello,” offers his most accomplished vision to date with “Henry V.” It is far from a breeze to find an actor with both the physical bearing and the brains to play a great warrior-king. So when it happens, the occasion is one for toasts and cheers.
Richmond works nimbly with magnetic actors. The director established a secure relationship with Folger veteran Ian Merrill Peakes, who played to bracing effect both Henry VIII and Iago for him. Now, in Appelman, Richmond and the company are minting another vigorous Shakespeare star, whose performance hearkens back to that of a British actor, Kenneth Branagh. In his fine 1989 film version, Branagh defined the role for modern audiences, with a humane, rousingly inspirational take on a regal man of action.
As in the movie, this new “Henry V” superbly evokes the king’s necessary casting off of feeling — the terrible loneliness that comes when power must be wielded equitably. Some of the men with whom Henry caroused in Cheapside as a youth (in “Henry IV Part One”) go to war in France with him in “Henry V.” When one of them, Louis Butelli’s convincingly foolish Bardolph, ignores the fatal edict against pillaging, he’s brought before Henry, who is forced to stare into the face of consequence.
Appelman’s visage registers fully the pain Henry is not allowed to vocalize; his Henry turns momentarily from the sight of Bardolph’s hanging, which Richmond stages immediately in front of us. It’s an event that can’t escape our gaze. As Bardolph twitches, his compadre Pistol (the sturdy-as-a-redwood James Keegan) steps forward to provide a compassionate tug, to hasten the work of the noose.
The buildup to Henry’s miraculous victory over the French at Agincourt — a campaign sparked in “Henry V” by, of all things, the schoolyard taunts made via emissary by the fatuous Dauphin (Andrew Schwartz) — is conjured here, for the most part, dexterously. Although it’s not always clear what is meant by the lowering and raising of the multiple pillars flanking the stage, Tony Cisek’s set of dense wooden scaffolding provides visual variety to battle scenes that otherwise might look a bit underpopulated. And working with fight director Casey Dean Kaleba, Richmond devises an ingeniously simple tableau with shields, lighting and sound effects for the lopsided climactic clash.