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Before working on it, I had always thought that Henry V was a rah-rah, pro-Henry, pro-England, pro-war play. I also thought that it was a story about a former wastrel who had reformed himself completely and then marched his way through a play, being a terrific leader and saying all the right things. But as I got to know the play better, I realized that it portrays a Henry and a war that are much more complicated and interesting than they first seem.
The play is full of incredibly provocative moments for a leader: Henry has to deal with committing his country to go to war, and then he has to deal with the betrayal of one of his best friends. He has to execute a beloved old companion in the middle of a war in order to send the right message to the rest of his troops. Then he has to deal with the carnage of war and what it means to be on a battlefield full of dead men. And so I began to find the kernel of a really interesting psychological story, especially if the distance between how this man acts publicly and how he feels privately is vast; if this is a man who in public is inspiring, direct, sure of himself and sure of what his country needs to be doing, and then in private is uncertain about the wisdom of the war, exhausted, lonely, anxious and torn apart by the things he must do.
But so much of the Henry we see in the play is the politician, the public figure. What we get of the private man comes mostly in a big speech in the fourth act. We’ve been watching this king deal with crisis after crisis and move on in what seems to be a pretty untroubled fashion, and then all of a sudden we see him explode with self-doubt. It’s an eruption of internality, of self-examination—it’s almost as if Hamlet or Brutus walks onstage in the middle of Henry V and delivers a monologue. It’s amazing, but for me it was a little frustrating that it happens so late in the play. So in this production we’re going to try to find ways to spend moments alone with Henry, to “go into his head” at critical moments, and then return to the play to watch the acts he needs to perform in order to behave like the good king that he knows he needs to be.
The speech by the soldier called Williams that prompts Henry’s self-reflection is morally one of the most challenging moments for the king and for the audience to negotiate. Its theme is, “How much responsibility for the death of men in war should lie on the leaders who sent them there?” That speech really cuts Henry to the quick, and it sends him into a forceful description of how “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” It is in a way a summation of a major theme that’s going on in all of Shakespeare’s history plays, which is, “How does one manage to be a human being and a king at the same time?” That speech, for me, encapsulates how painful it must be to maintain your humanity while doing the things that are expected of you as the leader of your country.
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