Demonstrating decisively that a hero can always be found waiting in the wings, a young actor by the name of Zach Appelman has come along to grab hold of the oratorical reins of “Henry V” and carry us with astonishing confidence back once more unto the breach.
Appelman commandingly occupies center stage of director Robert Richmond’s capital new staging of “Henry V” at Folger Theatre for, perhaps, the most stirring version of a Shakespeare history play the city has seen in a decade. Tautly constructed and impressively spoken, Richmond’s production conveys with the savvy deployment of a mere 13 actors (one of them a fiddle player) the evolution of a leader from petulant boy-soldier to lionhearted royal statesman.
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.
The luxe detailing of costume designer Mariah Hale’s raiments is another bonus, especially in the glorious gown for Katie deBuys’s Katherine, the French princess through whom Henry seeks to cement the postwar alliance of England and France. The addition of Jessica Witchger, who wanders the set, fiddling splendidly as France burns and singing a haunting “Non nobis Domine” after hostilities end, applies a pleasingly dynamic musicality.
Catherine Flye, as the princess’s attendant, and the aptly named Cameron Pow, a persuasively flaky and feisty Fluellen, contribute essential support. Richard Sheridan Willis has moving moments as the French messenger Montjoy (although how he keeps those locks looking Sassoon-salon chic on the field of battle is a mystery). As other important royals and soldiers, Edward Christian, Pomme Koch, Chris Genebach and Michael John Casey complete this high-caliber ensemble.
The quality, though, starts at the top. It’s apparent from the outset that Appelman is comfortable in Henry’s skin, even when Henry has not yet been seasoned by war. There’s almost a self-deceiving bravado in his Henry’s demeanor, in the early scene in which the king uncovers the treachery of noblemen Scroop, Cambridge and Grey — an enjoyment in vengeance unbecoming of a great monarch.
That youthful exuberance is tempered later, after the execution of Bardolph and in the delivery of Henry’s thrilling oration before battle, the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech. Branagh had the emotion-stoking advantage in the film of composer Patrick Doyle’s irresistible underscoring. Here, Richmond silences Witchger, leaving Appelman to rely on the music of his own voice. It’s smart and effective.
Henry’s flowering is affirmed in the wonderfully comic scene that ends the play, in his utterly disarming wooing with charm and words the skittish Katherine. She’s infused by deBuys with coquettish appeal. (Though, attention, wig master: The illusion suffers when the netting on the edges of the hairpiece is showing!)
Watching Appelman make the successful transition from war hero to rom-com hero leaves you with the impression that not only do things look rosy for England, but for the Folger box office, as well.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Mariah Hale; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Michael Rasbury; fight direction, Casey Dean Kaleba; dramaturg, Michele Osherow. About 2 hours 35 minutes. Through March 3 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu/theatre.