Given the rioting in England this week, it would seem an incongruous moment for the Classical Theatre of Harlem to stage Henry V, whose famed St. Crispin’s Day speech—bookended by warring bloodbaths—typically sets nationalistic pulses racing. But, in a thoughtful production marked by a string of nontraditional elements and brave choices, director Jenny Bennett mines Henry V for disaffection rather than chest-thumping loyalty to king and country, bringing to the surface the more sardonic aspects of Shakespeare’s ambivalent historical epic.
Pointedly, Bennett’s imaginative reworking of the play begins with a snippet from the last act of Henry IV, Part 2, as the just-crowned King Henry V harshly repudiates his former mentor Sir John Falstaff (“I know thee not, old man”), a portly knight of buried virtues and obvious vices. Supposedly, this blunt dismissal signals that the callow prince has been completely displaced by a new and noble persona. However, neither Bennett nor the arresting Ty Jones, whose unctuous portrayal of Henry frequently reverts to a salesman’s grin, appear convinced.
Surrounded by a game and tireless ensemble, most notably the hilarious Carine Montbertrand in an array of vastly different roles (Alice, Canterbury, Nym, Gower, Le Fer), Jones manages to remain true to his character’s heroic visage while simultaneously questioning it. Whether baiting a trap for a nest of traitors, leading the English army to an improbable victory over the French at Agincourt, or, in the aftermath of this battle, sweet-talking Princess Katherine (the touching Fedna Jacquet) to secure his hereditary line, Jones’s performance suggests the calculation behind Henry’s charisma and the self-serving hollowness of using phrases like “band of brothers” when you are king.