This is the fourth and final  in a series of four reviews of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings, now playing at The Brooklyn Academy of Music and presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Ohio State University. Click through for reviews of the other plays in the series: Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II; and for a series overview, click here.  



by JK Clarke


If one is to examine the Great Cycle of Kings as a whole—which the Royal Shakespeare Company is inviting us to do by presenting all four plays in repertory this month at BAM—it is important to evaluate what lessons and/or conclusions are being offered by the time the final play in the series, Henry V, rolls around. Clearly there are several grand messages Shakespeare wished to convey. These particular productions show Prince Hal (young, but eager Alex Hassell)—who was known in his youth for dwelling with the common people in lower class taverns—emerge as a strong, confident, yet humble monarch in touch with his subjects; from his example, we glean a handful of valuable lessons about leadership.



In the preceding plays of the Henriad, as the grouping has come to be known, we see leadership achieved through inheritance at a precocious age (Richard II), which ends in abject failure and overthrow following a reign marked by capriciousness, whim and tantrums, which shouldn’t at all be surprising since Richard was never allowed to grow up. Then Henry IV is plagued by guilt at his overthrow of Richard, since it technically violates the principle of divine right that he wishes to employ in his reign. He has undone “god’s will,” and it’s no surprise that a forceful rebellion has risen against him, such that he can’t even embark on a crusade to the Holy Land to atone for his sin. It is left, then, to Prince Hal to get royalty right. He experiences his young adult years without a shroud of responsibility hanging over his head (illustrated by his friendships with the rogues of Eastcheap); he is able to ascend the throne in the manner ordained by God, through divine right inheritance upon the death of his father (Henry IV) the king; and, most importantly, he has learned that in order to lead his subjects and ask them to go to war for him, he must be one with them.



Henry V begins with young King Henry and his ministers contemplating going to war with France to claim ancestral lands. But the Dauphin (a fabulously foppish Fauntleroy played by Robert Gilbert), the prince of France, sends the Henry a box of tennis balls, essentially telling to go play with himself. This, of course, was a bigger trigger than the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and Henry makes way for France. His numbers are small, his army weak and his enemy strongly fortified, so Henry’s chances of victory should be nil. But he’s fighting alongside his men, even disguising himself amongst them to know their minds, and charges headlong into battles punctuated with utterances like “once more unto the breach” and “we band of brothers,” in speeches so powerful and uplifting they’ve made it into modern vernacular. King Henry V’s style is the epitome of valorous leadership, and he leads his soldiers to overwhelming and humbling the French to such a degree that the French king not only offers up his lands, but his daughter. Henry, ever modest, politely woos Katherine (a charming, but stately Jennifer Kirby), conveying that he is not taking her for granted or as a spoil of war. Rather, he wants her to genuinely love him, as he does her. That’s Henry in a nutshell: earnest, hard-working and gentle, yet powerful. He’s what leadership is meant to look like, Shakespeare appears to be telling us, and it was a strong message to deliver as Queen Elizabeth I was in her waning days as monarch.



Henry V is one of the better known of Shakespeare’s history plays, having risen to modern cultural prominence through several classic cinematic productions, the most recent being Kenneth Branagh’s magnificent 1989 film. But on stage is always a better way to see Shakespeare, and there’s no better offering than this production. From Oliver Ford Davies’ warm and humorous introduction of the play in his role as Chorus— dressed in a cardigan sweater, slacks and a red scarf, like an English gentleman who’s just arisen from a fireside armchair to introduce (and continues to narrate throughout) this gripping story; to Hassell’s evolving King Henry; to Joshua Richard’s gruff, amusing Welsh officer Fluellen; to Simon Yadoo’s hilariously unintelligible Scottish officer, Jamy; it’s a complete, solid, and exciting production. Gregory Doran’s brilliant direction holds through in this final episode, and equally noteworthy is Stephen Brimson Lewis’s distinctly medieval, though minimal set; and Stephanie Arditti’s breathtakingly period-perfect costumes. The entire series is Shakespeare’s histories at their finest, and Henry V is a fitting, final feather in the cap.


Henry V (Fourth play of Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings quadrilogy). Through May 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn).


Photos: Richard Termine