Review: Does Power Corrupt in ‘Henry V’? Absolutely

Posted April 28, 2018 12:27 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Shakespeare worried — or pretended to worry — about whether the “wooden O” of the Globe Theater could house a pivotal battle. Director Robert O’Hara has only 12 square feet of carpet to work with in his swift, sometimes stumbling production of “Henry V” for the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit.

The Mobile Unit travels around to underserved populations, performing for the homeless, the elderly, the incarcerated, before rolling back up to the Public Theater. If the history play “Henry V” hasn’t insinuated itself into popular culture as easily as some plays — hi, Hamlet! — it lends itself to carting around, however small the carpet swatch. It’s a brisk and straightforward history play with a plot that doesn’t do the twist. Following the “Henry IV” plays, it describes Henry’s rash but ultimately successful invasion of France. Though the play isn’t as on-the-nose jingoistic as some interpretations insist, it’s still a provocative choice in a volatile political moment.

Well, O’Hara, who is also a playwright (“Bootycandy,” “Barbecue”), doesn’t mind provoking, but while he complicates the script in several ways, it takes a long time to figure out what he wants to do with it. The nine actors speak the prologue as a chorus, then spend the next 100 minutes running from one side of the room to the other, tugging on red accessories when they’re playing the English and blue ones for the French. (Only a few costume pieces and props are used, and there’s no set except for that carpet and a throne.)

Having the same actors play opposing sides undercuts our desire to cheer for the English, subverting the play’s nationalism. If the exaggerated accents are a privilege of the French roles, almost all the parts are played as caricature. The verse is usually clear — sometimes those snooty accents muddy it — but there’s not much interiority on display. Color-coding aside, it can be tough to suss out who’s who. An exception is Patrice Johnson’s shade-throwing, scarf-wielding Mountjoy.

O’Hara’s most obvious intervention is the casting of the engaging Zenzi Williams, an African-American actress, as Henry, a canny move that makes us ask some useful questions about whom we expect to see leading an army and rocking a crown. Williams can do both, handily. It’s unclear whether she’s playing the part as male or female. It’s extraneous, too. Gender doesn’t seem to matter to this production.

What does ultimately matter is power — who has it, who wants it, how to wield it. If Williams’ Henry is an inspiring leader when victory seems anything but assured, the actress transforms into a much more worrying one once Agincourt is won. (What’s that thing about power corrupting? Oh. Right.) The wooing scene, usually played as a sweetly comic cool-down after the heat of battle, isn’t sweet here, as Henry asserts his battle-born authority in violent and abusive ways. Too bad Princess Katharine lived before #BalanceTonPorc got going.

O’Hara’s brisk production gets the story told, from Harfleur to Agincourt to an uneasy peace. But with the pointed exception of this final scene, it doesn’t always seem to know which story it’s telling. This version isn’t an unthinking endorsement of rah-rah patriotism, but it’s not really an attack on nation-building either; the critique stays personal. For large stretches it isn’t much of anything except fast and mildly funny. Is there a muse of fire in the house?

— Event Information:

“Henry V”

Through May 13 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.