ORLANDO — The true magic of theater is the ability to successfully tap into the audience’s imagination until the moment on hand is completely riveting and thrilling. That’s the perfect way to describe the moment midway through the Orlando Shakes production of Shakespeare’s war play Henry V. Bombs explode, the sky lights up vividly, the soldiers and peasants run frantically for cover. Orlando Shakes employs every creative sound and lighting effect they have to illustrate the terror of war, and the actors, literally in a matter of seconds, bring it home in a fiercely gripping way to the audience.
It’s equally fitting that as the play nears its conclusion, as the British and French attempt to negotiate the Treaty of Troyes, our military genius Henry suddenly shows a remarkably different side of his persona. Now he’s virtually a smitten schoolboy, eager to romance the French princess, Katherine of Valois, who barely speaks any English and shows no interest in wooing the man who conquered her country. Performed with razor-sharp comedic skill by Benjamin Bonenfant as Henry and Anita Whitney Bennett as Katherine, the play is engrossing for this very reason: successfully juggling a complex mix of emotions, from the cruelty of war to quieter and certainly more humorous moments as well.
The Orlando Shakes production of Henry V continues through Feb. 5, and anchored by an exceptionally strong lead performance by Bonenfant, this is a show you don’t want to miss.
What Works in Orlando Shakes’ Henry V?
Shakespeare’s play about the British king’s decision to invade France — based on his assumption that he’s the rightful heir to the French throne — starts out with a grand visual moment. The French Dauphin responds to Henry’s claims not only by mocking him, but adding insult to injury with a condescending gift of tennis balls to match King Henry’s youth and vanity. The new ruler of England, inexperienced as he may be, sets out to prove he can unite his country and defeat the French anyway.
Over the decades, theater critics have been divided over how to interpret the play’s attitude toward warfare. Does it encourage a nationalistic fervor, something Laurence Olivier did in his 1944 film version made during World War II, which attempted to use the play to rouse England’s patriotic zeal?
While the play does seem to endorse Henry’s invasion of France, other critics have noted how often the play reflects on the moral and personal cost of war, with Henry talking of “rape and pillage” during Harfleur. One aspect of the Orlando Shakes production, which was vividly directed by Carolyn Howarth, is the way the show captures the complexity of war. There are triumphs, and there are painful sacrifices.
Bonenfant is totally captivating as Henry, young but so eager to prove his military and mental alertness. He wants to be seen as strong, in command, a ruler his people can faithfully follow. He decrees that anyone who plotted against him should be subject to death. On the battlefield, he orders the killing of prisoners.
A very action-packed production, the play also soars on some of its quieter moments, which give us a chance to reflect on the play’s themes of power and leadership in a time of crisis. So many of these scenes are astonishingly well done.
What Stands Out About this Version of Henry V?
Everything about the production is first rate. The costumes designed by Jack Smith look fantastic, and in addition to Bonenfant’s superb performance, there are plenty of other actors to marvel at here, including Philip Nolen as the older although not necessarily always wiser French King and Bennett as the beautiful but fierce Katherine.
There are grand comedic moments provided by Timothy Williams as Ancient Pistol, the bombastic soldier who boasts about his prowess but is basically a coward, and Brandon Roberts as the thief Bardolph.
In fact, so many of the cast members juggle multiple roles without making it the least bit confusing to follow. As an ensemble group, their work here is uniformly impressive.
Where Can I see Henry V?
Henry V is being performed now through Feb. 5 at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater at 812 E Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park. For more information or to reserve tickets, call (407) 447-1700.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.