Last Friday night, as many Arkansans were having trees flung into their homes by the strongest non-tornadic storm to blow through Central Arkansas in quite some time, I was sitting comfortably in a sold-out theater, watching one of the most compelling, thoughtful, well-acted, and, yes, hilarious, Shakespeare plays I have ever seen. The Rep's current take on "Henry V" is a spectacle to behold.
From the set design (brought to us by the inimitable Mike Nichols, who is celebrating his 30th year as The Rep's set designer) to the lighting, from the choreography to the sound-design, from the superlative acting right through to the final lines of the play, "Henry V" is a thing of beauty. Bob Hupp's direction is as fluid and subtle as would be expected of a man of his breadth and talent, and Avery Clark, who plays King Henry, delivers a performance commensurate with the great Shakespearean actors, bringing a realism and a contemporary slant to the character that would be identifiable to even the dullest among us. His Henry is a man of humility, honor, grace, and humor. The Rep's show overflows with perfectly-timed, expertly-crafted lines so funny that in the final act the audience was laughing too much, making it hard to hear some of the dialogue.
The Rep has outdone itself this time. As loyal fans of The Rep's many years of studious work, we have come to expect the best in stagecraft when we nestle into our seats, and as the lights dim, there is never a flutter of worry of the quality of the work we are about to see. This time, however, I noticed something more, something gleaming and bright flowing from the stage, illuminating the anachronistic language of a 400-year-old play. What I saw was acting on a level that surpassed all live performances I have yet seen in Shakespeare's plays, and yes, that surpassed the storied Kenneth Branagh film from 1989. I know that speaking ill of Branagh is blasphemy, yet I do not apologize. The actors in The Rep's "Henry V" utterly transformed the Bard's prose into a living and breathing work of glory. As I mentioned, Clark amazed, but he was not alone in that regard. The night was awash in transcendent performances.
My personal favorite was Peter Leake, who, as Lord Scrope brought a lump to my throat with his emotionally charged take on a doomed man, a rueful traitor, as he is judged by King Henry and then summarily executed. Something about Leake's face, his emotionality, tore right through the lines of dialogue and left an impression on me that lingered well into the final act. Nikki Coble effortlessly charmed as Katherine of Valois, and her (too few) scenes were a true high point. Jason Guy, as the Chorus, perfectly engendered the beauty of the text and lent an ease and familiarity to the role. Joe Menino, as Charles VI, was excellent as the contemplative French king contending stoically with the English rivalry, bringing a statesmanship that hung above his scenes like a coat of arms.
I could go on and on, delineating the superb performances, one by one, but really, you should just go watch this play for yourself. You won't even mind missing any dramatic weather, should it return. I surely didn't mind. The drama on stage last Friday night was ample.
"Henry V" runs Sept. 5-23 Wednesday through Sunday at Arkansas Repertory Theater.