BRATTLEBORO—This weekend, British history is coming alive in the park.
Sponsored by King Arthur Flour and Vermont Country Deli, the Vermont Theatre Company (VTC) presents its 23rd annual Shakespeare in the Park, Henry V, in Brattleboro’s Living Memorial Park at 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, June 28, 29, and 30, and July 1.
Henry V tells the tale of the transformation of a callow young prince into a wise and just king. The drama is based on the life of King Henry V of England, focusing on events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt in France during the Hundred Years’ War.
The play is best known for its huge Battle of Agincourt scene and for Henry’s speeches to rally and inspire his troops: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends...” — and his St. Crispin’s Day speech, as well as for having one of Shakespeare’s most touching love scenes, in which Henry tries charmingly, and hilariously, to woo France’s Princess Katherine.
VTC’s production of Henry V features 26 of the area’s finest actors.
“Ours is an ensemble creative piece,” said the production’s director, Jessica Callahan.
Rather than a star-driven piece like Hamlet, Callahan said Henry V “is a drama where each supporting role is vital to the overall effect of the production.”
The entire cast, along with Fight Director Jodi Clark, Music Composer Todd Roach, and Dramaturge Cameron Cobane, have been working since January to make the play come alive for audiences.
Callahan’s goal is “to help the audiences see 75,000 soldiers on the stage, and not the 25 that are actually there, to see thousands of ships and horses when the cast talks of them, to feel the fear that Henry’s soldiers felt the night before the Battle of Agincourt, to be inspired by Henry’s rousing speeches, to want Henry to win over the reluctant Katherine and to feel the excitement and the fear of the unknown that Katherine and Henry both feel.”
Callahan herself chose the play a year and a half ago.
“So, it has been been on my plate a long time,” she said. “I realize that it may seem an unusual choice for VTC to pick, but I wanted to do something special for Shakespeare in the Park this summer. And it has been a very long time since one of Shakespeare’s history plays has been performed in the Brattleboro area. I think the last history play was Henry IV by NEYT in 2000. So I felt comfortable that it was time for a new one.”
“I proposed Henry V to our board, after several other choices I was interested in, but that they didn’t particularly go for. They kept saying that they wanted to do something else, maybe a comedy. However, when I mentioned Henry V, they all got very excited. Everyone had something thrilling to say about the play.”
Callahan said that Henry V is considered Shakespeare’s third most popular drama, after Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Yet it might be reasonable to ask how this antiquated historical drama can be so popular?
She offers a succinct answer. “Henry V is a strange work on which people can project so many different emotions.”
This point is illustrated by comparing the two famous movie versions — the Laurence Olivier production in 1944, and the Kenneth Branagh production in 1989 — which earned both actors Academy Award nominations.
Olivier’s version was partially funded by the British government, and made at the urging of Prime Minister Winston Churchill as a morale booster for war-weary Britons. Its production and release in England coincided with the Normandy invasion.
By contrast, Branagh’s version came out as the Cold War, and the bloodiest century in human history, was drawing to a close. The battle scenes in this film are far more gritty and less stylized than the Olivier version, as much a reflection of the time it was made as Olivier’s film was of its time.
Callahan said the VTC production is neither a nationalistic broadside, nor an antiwar piece.
“Rather our Henry V is about how a community can come together,” she said, an important concern Vermonters now face after Tropical Storm Irene.
In order that the cast could better understand the play, last April, VTC asked the community to join them for three different discussions about Henry V.
“These were exciting conversations,” Callahan said. “We explored the play’s themes of war and patriotism, and the idea of coming of age. The time we spoke with a group of veterans was especially invigorating. We had veterans from World War II, Vietnam, and the two Iraq wars. They explained what combat was like, and how men and women of all walks of life and generations came to see his or her place in the world and its responsibilities.”
Like King Henry V himself, Callahan said the veterans “understand that they once were young and made rash decisions, but soon came to learn how they must make sacrifices. Live combat for these veterans was not as much about heroics as it was about surviving and getting back to their lives back at home. We carefully considered all these ideas, and I think they are reflected in our production.”
Callahan has lots to says about history, theory, and directing as she discusses Henry V , but her pitch to the person on the street is a little different: “Come on over to Living Memorial and see Henry V. It has princesses and swords, but also drama and a lot of passion.”