The stirring theatrical invocation that begins William Shakespeare's Henry V - "O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention" and so on - has seldom seemed quite as a prophetic as it does at the Delacorte this summer. This famous opening speech gives the Public's production of Henry V both an unfortunate liability, but two superb assets.
The liability is that exhortation made by the Chorus cannot be wholly fulfilled, with the glorious backdrop of Central Park and the significant expanse of chairs and scaffolding that scenic designer Mark Wendland has placed in front of it. Truly, this production does have a kingdom for the stage, so the audience's imagination in constructing the scene is neither required nor even desired. While this strips a layer of theatricality away from a show that wears it on its sleeve, director Mark Wing-Davey and choreographer David Neumann have worked very hard and very successfully at defining the near-epic scope of the play while keeping it grounded and accessible.
And it certainly doesn't hurt that they have indeed found a prince to act, or at least the next best thing, with Liev Schreiber portraying the title role. A regal, imposing figure with a voice to match, Schreiber is a New York Shakespeare stalwart for good reason, and he can safely add Henry V to his list of impressive accomplishments, bringing depth, shading, and introspection to the role while still allowing room for the script's trademarked ambiguity.
Schreiber's "choices without choices" are perhaps his single greatest contribution to the production, which may well prove the most divisive of the play in modern history; seldom have the facts of the play seemed so malleable. The basic story is undeniable: After ascending to the throne, Henry aspires to invade France and claim that throne as his birthright. Yet how tenuous is the technicality on which he claims it? Is the proposal, in the form of a detailed (and unavoidably funny) diatribe on Salic law (perfectly delivered by David Costabile) genuine or fabricated?
Given our own current political climate and recent events, just about everyone will answer these questions differently, resulting in still more questions as the play progresses. Did the French instigate the conflict, or are they the victims? Can Henry's speeches to his troops or what he attempts to pass off to us as his innermost thoughts be taken at face value? And when he pursues the French princess Katharine (Nicole Leach), is it because she represents love or the spoils of war?
Though he comes down on no particular side, Wing-Davey's production is never wishy-washy; the uncertainties themselves provide a strong dramatic anchor most of the time. He occasionally overplays his hand - giant propagandistic billboards depicting Henry's conquests are attractive but go a bit too far - but hits even the more spectacle-heavy moments exactly right. With the help of David Weiner's lights and sound design from Acme Sound Partners, the battle scenes are often tense and thrilling, with a real Les Miserables quality that works for the atmosphere Wing-Davey has established.
Some of the performances do work against this, however. Martin Rayner as the French king and Ryan Shively as his son do the most damaging work, acceptable but not powerful. They can't provide fierce or threatening adversaries for Henry, bordering more often on foppishness. (Gabriel Berry's costumes, so attractively right for the English, do little to help.) Leach and Mercedes Herrero (as Katharine's attendant) do much better with far less; their all-French scene, a frequent sticking point for productions of the show, is clear enough here to have been spoken in English.
The actors portraying the English - including Bronson Pinchot, spinning Henry's friend Pistol in a slightly unusual but effective tragicomic way - do better overall, though none is in danger of deposing Schreiber as unquestioned king of this production. He paints Henry's words and actions with a wide variety of colors and gives them a sheen of cool intensity that can send chills up your spine on a warm summer night while still keeping the stage about him red hot.
The majesty Shakespeare and Schreiber bring to this Henry V is one to be savored while it lasts, which, thanks to the passing of the seasons, will be but a blink of an eye compared to how long Henry V has survived and will continue to thrive in the dramatic repertoire. As names and faces of actors, audiences, and political figures providing resonance change, Shakespeare's work will continue to provide the same questions and commentary, if seldom quite as multifaceted or controversial as this.