By Jack Gardner
“Henry V” took to the stage at First Folio Theatre at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, now running through Aug. 18, as part of its Shakespeare-under-the-Stars series. One of Shakespeare’s most famous histories, “Henry V” is the final chapter in the tetralogy, preceded by “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part I,” and Henry IV, Part II”.
This production marks the last play to be on First Folio’s outdoor stage, which has stood since 1997. In order to update and retrofit the aging structure, the company will take a two-year hiatus and return in summer 2021 to resume their Shakespeare-under the-the-Stars series, which has run for 23 straight seasons with 28 productions.
“Henry V” follows the events of “Henry IV, Part II,” when Prince Hal is crowned and declared King Henry V of England. Henry (played by Diana Coates) seeks evidence for his claim to the throne of France as well and, after being humiliated by the French King’s son, the Dauphin (played by Sophie Scanlon), gets confirmation of his claim and prepares for an invasion of France. The rest of the play chronicles the campaign on French soil during the Hundred Years’ War, ultimately ending in the historic victory of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry’s eventual ascension to the throne of France and marriage to princess Katherine (also Sophie Scanlon).
Director and ensemble member Hayley Rice has elected to explore a new angle with non-traditional casting, while simultaneously producing this show outside, where Shakespeare was originally staged. This crossover marries classic and modern in a way where traditional Shakespearean charm can exist without sacrificing interesting narrative devices. The choice to make not only King Henry, but also several of the roles, gender-swapped is one that challenges audiences’ preconceived notions of who these characters are. This allows for more emphasis to be placed on the characters and, in the case of Henry, someone who has experience outside of his own gender or race can allow them to explore facets of his character in more detail. For example, a woman of color can directly relate to Henry’s struggle of proving himself as a leader.
The whole First Folio ensemble has very clear objectives throughout the play, making every scene extremely easy to follow despite the nature of Shakespeare’s old English. Specifically, Coates as Henry is a highlight, as her energy and charisma in portraying the young king persists throughout, making the “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” or “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” speeches live up to their legendary status. Scanlon shines in both dramatic and comedic roles as the cocksure yet cowardly Dauphin and as the hilariously ditzy and naïve Katherine — especially during the famous “elbow” scene.
While “Henry V” is filled with political intrigue and drama that assuredly inspired the likes of “Game of Thrones,” this show also features a decent amount of action. The battles in this production are outstanding, as the fourth wall is shattered with the first cannon blast. The hillside in which the audience occupies is surrounded by Englishmen as their siege of the French countryside pours from the stage and into the spaces between picnic blankets. Additionally, the fight choreography, courtesy of Rachel Flesher, both captures the chaos of medieval battles while delivering on the flashy spectacle of one-on-one sword duels. Luckily, despite being on the field at night, the stars are not the only thing illuminating the staging happening offstage. Julie Ballard has designed the lighting so lights hidden within the trees surrounding the clearing can brighten the action happening before the audience’s lap.
First Folio Theatre’s “Henry V” is perfect for fans of the Bard or the average theatre-goer alike. Extra care was taken to flesh out these characters and deliver a story that, while over 400 years old, feels fresh and unique. While Shakespeare is the longest produced playwright in the English language, you’ll certainly miss Shakespeare-under-the-Stars if you don’t visit before their hiatus.
FYI: Tickets are $34-$44 at www.firstfolio.org or at (630) 986-8067