Opening Nights: Henry V

Camelot goes Mad Men, but it lacks heart.

What with all the harkening back to Camelot during the 2008 presidential election, it was only a matter of time before Seattle Shakes put Henry V—the bard's most head-on exploration of leadership, political power, and war—in the early 1960s. Though the setting is Britain, most of the visuals say United States—specifically the JFK era, a la Mad Men. From a sexy cabaret solo performance of Skeeter Davis' 1963 hit "The End of the World" to cocktail-swilling conferences on Eames-style furniture, Mad Men's Don Draper would approve (and on the basis of style, so do I). However, director Russ Banham seems so concerned with the cynical subtext of the space age that he neglects to sell the rousing rhetoric of a young king eager for national unity. Rather, the production goes for a blanket "Wink-wink, everyone knows politics is a sham" ennui that's at odds with the communal determination Henry must sincerely inspire to win the Battle of Agincourt. (Winning a war in France was about as distant a prospect as traveling to the moon.)New king Henry has a media problem: He's still perceived as the ruffian that he was in his youth with vulgar buddy Falstaff. How better to trample questions about his character and legitimacy—his father was a usurper—than by going to war? So he trumps up a thin pretext against France and charges "into the breach," only later appreciating the lives he puts at risk.Both play and production—designed by Jason Phillips—roar with modern echoes from an array of regimes, and not just during the '60s. There's W's trumped-up war and daddy issues, Obama's smooth talk and media savvy (reflected in Henry's speeches), the military-industrial complex that Ike warned us about (represented by Henry's uniformed entourage), and Camelot (most iconically repped by the Chanel-suited French charmer Princess Katherine of France, played by Alexandra Tavares, who resembles a young Jacqueline Bouvier).It's quite an historical mishmash, bits of which work nicely. Katherine's lady in waiting is played by Jerick Hoffer as a fey, mod male French designer. A palace gift of tennis balls is received with the paranoid protocol of bomb detection. The dauphin of France is dressed in beatnik suit and turtleneck. But beneath the production's retro chic, enhanced by fun French '60s pop, there's a lack of heart.For most of the play, Evan Whitfield's performance as Henry is as aloof as Don Draper on TV. To resist full engagement with his entourage is an acceptable choice for a new, insecure king, but even during the soberest scenes, Whitfield seems hard-put to hide his natural charisma here. (The same tension crept into his peevish office-manager role in Seattle Public Theater's recent production of The Violet Hour.) His rendition of the famous St. Crispin's Day speech—"For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother"—is a little too diffident to rally the troops. As Obama is often accused of doing, Henry leads too much from the head. There's no Tea Party passion.Yet soon after, as field reports of war deaths start coming in by radio, Henry's face is hidden in the shadow of the Duke of Bedford. What's going on there? Is the war finally affecting him? When news of the Agincourt victory arrives, his body shakes, as though the starch is starting to crack. His most animated moments come later, with the formalizing of peace with (read: subjugation of) France. Finally his eyes are on fire as he persuades one tiny woman to have him (and his nation) in marriage. Not that she can very well say no.

 
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