Within William Shakespeare's body of work, there is a subset of plays known colloquially as the history plays. These plays are tethered to historical events and people and offer the more devoted of Shakespeare's students a little more grist than the philosophical musings of his purely fictional works. If Shakespeare's more well-known plays such as "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet" are psychological journeys into the heart and mind, then it could be reasonably argued that "Henry V" is closer to a dramatic excursion into the soul. And if the black-and-white concepts such as love, anger and vengeance of "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet" are the stuff even teen-agers can identify with, "Henry V" can be seen as a stolid gaze into the deep waters of adulthood, with the play's contemplative, shades-of-gray themes of sacrifice, redemption, reverence, and honor.
"Henry V" is a larger-than-life play and the first ever of Shakespeare's history plays to be staged at The Rep. "We've done Shakespeare, approximately, every other year for the past 12 years. The last Shakespeare we did was 'Hamlet,' and that production turned out to be very successful for us," Rep artistic director Robert Hupp said. "I felt like we were poised to take the next step, and the next step is what many think is a more difficult Shakespeare play."
Hupp saw Kenneth Branagh in the role of Henry in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production in the mid '80s.
"And since that time, I have always wanted to work on 'Henry V' and had never had the opportunity because it is big — 52 speaking parts in the play. It took seven or eight years for that to come to fruition, including several Shakespeare [plays] in between then and now. We did [Hitchcock's] 'The 39 Steps' after we did 'Hamlet.' The entire cast of 'The 39 Steps' was in this production of 'Hamlet.' So, we just had a really great group of people we were working with, and I thought we could collaborate together on 'Henry V.' "
Hupp captured the play in a word: "Big." "Henry V" is grandiose. Henry's self-contradictory character is an amalgam of adult themes. He is heroic, yet orders the untoward execution of French prisoners. Praying for his own soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry begs God to "save them all," and then, shortly thereafter, orders his troops onto a battlefield, forcing them to face huge numbers of enemy soldiers.
As Hupp put it, "Henry is a character of contradictions. Henry embodies nobility. Henry also embodies ambition. He embodies rash action, and he also embodies contemplation."
The mature themes in "Henry V" are in capable hands, and this production promises to be among the more cerebrally satisfying outings of the season. Avery Clark — star of The Rep's "Hamlet" and "The 39 Steps" productions — returns to The Rep's stage as the lead.
"[Henry's] overall arc ... is from the top of the play; he's dealing with the court, who kind of incite him into this war, and the next scene, you see him dealing with lords. His next scene, he's dealing with his soldiers, then the next scene, the night before the battle, he puts on his cloak and he deals with the commoners," Clark said.
"So, he kind of gets this full trajectory of starting up here, dealing with the elite, and going down to the troglodytes, basically. So he goes through this full arc. And that has nothing to do with me. That's Shakespeare. He gave that to me."
Joining Clark in the production will be an accomplished cast that includes Nikki Coble as Katherine of Valois, who speaks mostly French throughout her scenes, D.C. Wright, who pulls double duty as actor and fight choreographer, and Jason Guy, also pulling double duty as both the Chorus and Montjoy.
Jason Collins, who plays Fluellen, explained the character in terms of contrast. "Fluellen is a captain, but he's not of noble birth. He's a common guy," Collins said. "What's interesting about Fluellen is that as much as our production is about shades of gray, I think Fluellen is one of the most black-and-white characters in the show. He's dealing with what is honorable and what it not, what is right and what is wrong, and he doesn't really see much gray."
"Henry V" is a play that has pulsed with contemporaneous politics — in all eras — since its composition.
" 'Henry V' has been used throughout the 20th and 21st century in a lot of propagandistic ways," Hupp said. "During World War II, Laurence Olivier did a production of 'Henry V' all about, 'Let's rally the troops because we're at war.' During the Vietnam War, there were productions that were specifically set in Vietnam because 'Henry V' can also be seen as a real strong anti-war play because of the violence and the pointlessness of the slaughter.
"And so, to me, today, in what I believe is a more complicated world, a world defined by shades of gray, and less than black-and-white, I think all of those elements are important. Both the idea of the necessity and importance of why we go to war, but also that there's nothing pure about that decision," Hupp said. "I think what makes 'Henry V' a contemporary play is that it's messy, and it doesn't wrap everything up in a nice package, and it presents both sides of important national issues."
"Henry V" opens The Rep's 2012-2013 season. The "Pay What You Can" production is at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 and Student Night ($15 for high school and college students) is Sept. 6. The play officially opens Sept. 7 and runs Wednesday through Sunday through Sept. 23. Advance tickets are $20 to $35 through Sept. 6, after which they'll range from $25 to $45.