Henry V

V for Victory

Sanford Robbins delivers a clear, resourceful prodction of Henry V.

by Mark Cofta

Published: May 9, 2007

"Think that when we talk of horses," an actor instructs, "you see them." Follow these simple directions and Shakespeare's Henry V — a play about war, honor and theater — comes to life in Sanford Robbins' engrossing Delaware Theatre Company production.

Commentary on the art of theater occurs throughout Shakespeare's plays, but nowhere are audiences tutored so clearly as in Henry V: "Let us, ciphers to this great account/On your imaginary forces work." Robbins obliges with a clear, resourceful production employing two bare-wheeled platforms, a wrinkled sheet and props and costumes from the back of the closet. Shakespeare wrote for an open-air theater with no modern design elements, so the houselights remain lit.

Most importantly, just seven skilled actors play over 30 roles, transforming effortlessly before our eyes from English commoners to French noblemen without a moment's confusion. A nod not to the Bard but modern theater's inescapable economic realities, this raises the stakes considerably. We're asked to suspend disbelief not only about sets and costumes, but about actors and characters.

Fortunately, they make it easy, and make us feel smart. Consider Michael Gotch, who shifts repeatedly from unctuous bishop to pugnacious peasant to traitorous Lord to fey French prince to prudish lady-in-waiting Alice to noble Earl to anxious foot soldier to frightened French prisoner, donning various coats and hats from clever designer Andrea Barrier but distinguishing each character through clear, sincere, powerful acting.

The entire cast is equally proficient, their roles similarly numerous and diverse: Drew Brhel, Paul Hurley, Stephen Smith and Steve Tague are truly superb. Sarah Fallon plays men and boys, then becomes French princess Katherine (a long hunk of blue fabric makes a flowing skirt) for a truly lovely bilingual encounter with Matthew Burke's valiant, soul-searching King Henry, a brash young leader who grows in wisdom and strength in office (imagine that!) before our eyes.

Henry V celebrates English pluck, acknowledging the cost of war ("Few die well when they die in a battle") while admitting its necessity. Seen today, seen here, it seems almost quaint to know who one's fighting and when one's victorious, but the play's most pertinent commentary concerns the personal honor of those in charge, and their sincere concern for the inevitably sacrificed common soldiers.

Robbins never emphasizes these connections to contemporary situations, wisely allowing this well-spoken play's universal themes of war, honor, and theater to speak eloquently for itself. 

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