Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ prods the audience to think about future leaders

The Chautauqua Theater Company is soon to take its last curtain call. With the third and final mainstage production of the 2015 season opening Saturday, CTC is ready to unwrap its parting gift for the Chautauquans: the Bard’s Henry V.

Henry V, the first-ever Shakespeare history play produced by CTC, premieres at 4 p.m. Saturday in Bratton Theater. It continues its run at 2:15 and 8 p.m. Sunday.

Henry V is the second-most-popular history play in performance but only half as popular as Richard III, said Laura Estill, assistant professor in the Department of English at Texas A&M University and editor at World Shakespeare Bibliography Online.

“Today, Henry V could be considered one of Shakespeare’s most accessible history plays. The plot, although drawing on the earlier plays, can stand alone,” she said. “It doesn’t require previous historical knowledge. It has a chorus to walk us through the historical events and to tell us what has happened and what will happen and even — in some cases — how we should react.”

However, Director Evan Cabnet believes that one of his biggest challenges is that Henry V is the end of a series; hence, it comes with a heavy background story.

“Of the histories, this is my favorite,” he said. “One of the big challenges, in the best possible way, is how do we honor the other pieces of the story so that an audience familiar with those characters and plays would be able to enjoy it.”

But the play also has to be accessible to audience members who are “coming in cold,” Cabnet said.

Henry V was written around 1599, part of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy.

“The second tetralogy goes back in time, like George Lucas doing ‘Star Wars’ 4-6 first and 1-3 later,” Estill said. “It includes Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. The two standalone plays are Henry VIII and King John.”

Henry V revolves around the title character, the formerly wild and unruly Hal, who becomes a mature individual as King Henry V, strong-minded in his pursuit to rule France.

Although the play was written toward the end of the 16th century, it dovetails contemporary issues in America.

“To be cliché, but in a great way, the country is starting an election year, so there is no better play to make people meditate, contemplate and engage over issues of leadership and stability and citizenry,” said CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch.

Henry V reflects American culture and its decisions, Cabnet said.

“It speaks to leadership in a way I don’t know any other play does, in terms of what we want in a leader, what we admire about our leaders, and we expect from our leaders in a rational and irrational way,” he said. “Vivienne’s decision to program Henry V this summer has been more profound than any of us knew.”

To keep the play from reaching the four-hour mark, certain parts have been edited. Still, Henry V will run for just over 3 hours and 10 minutes, making it the longest play this season.

“We are not doing any conceptual departures from the play,” Cabnet said. “That said, the frame of the play is imagination, which is something that thematically came up this season. We are taking that as our cue, as Shakespeare tells us to in the prologues. The audience has a role to play in the productions. They are not simply bystanders but are charged with the responsibility of filling in the blanks with their imagination.”

For instance, the costumes are all contemporary dress but echo the color, shape, silhouette of something period-appropriate. Audience members will then be expected to fill in the rest using their creative powers.

Cabnet, Benesch and the CTC team are excited to present Henry V to the Chautauquan audience. Not only is this the first time a history play is being performed by CTC, the play also includes the whole conservatory.

“The play is very rich, but I would like the audience to leave the Bratton thinking a little bit more about who our leaders are and what we expect from them,” Cabnet said. “In what way are those expectations achievable? In what ways are our aspiring leaders a reflection of who we are as a culture?”