How does a notorious party boy with a drinking problem, son of his country’s ruler, overcome his dissolute past and rise to the challenge of leading a nation in wartime? Not very well, in contemporary America, it seems. But in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the playwright paints a different picture of how a forceful and effective leader can emerge after an unpromising start. Lost Nation Theater’s production of the classic opens in Montpelier this week.
Shakespeare drew his inspiration from historical chronicles of the real medieval English king’s travails and triumphs. The wayward, womanizing Prince Hal, seen in the Henry IV plays, straightens up once the crown is on his head. Threats to his sovereignty and to England’s safety surround him, from the French across the English Channel, conspiring nobles at home and pesky Scots and restive Irish on either side. Henry V focuses on a climactic turning point in the grueling Hundred Years’ War with France, the Battle of Agincourt (1415).
The king’s mission is accomplished, but he remains acutely aware of the human cost. Sally Wood, who is co-directing with LNT Artistic Director Kim Bent, contradicts the common characterization of Henry V as a pro-war play. “It’s more a pro-good-leadership play,” she says. Both she and actor Paul Molnar, who stars as Henry, emphasize how the young monarch comes of age during the play.
“He’s got a lot to prove,” Wood reflects. In the earlier plays, “He’s a complete punk-ass kid — fighting with his father, drinking with Falstaff, sleeping around.” When he first takes power, his advisors “don’t trust him as far as they can throw him,” she says. And yet, he listens carefully to their counsel, Molnar notes. “He’s reluctant to go to war at the beginning, and he asks all the right questions.” Henry goes into battle only once he secures the essential justifications of the day: hereditary right and church approval.
Both Wood and Molnar agree about the heightened intensity of putting on a war-themed play during a controversial current conflict. “It’s our responsibility,” says Molnar, “to think about those issues . . . There are human conditions that exist in this play that are also relevant now, and those are the themes that I think we have to explore.”
For Wood, the modern context makes it “even more important now to focus on the man . . . Different from our leaders today, Henry is the first guy out on the field.”
This is what makes Henry a hero, Molnar believes. “He doesn’t just send his troops off and say, ‘Go win this war for me. Go get the land and the title and the money.’ He is the first one across the line . . . Of course, it’s unheard of now. But there’s something to that — that it’s not just mouth honor. He commits fully his soul and body to what he believes.”
Wood and Molnar welcome the audience to see Shakespeare’s characters and ideas through a 21st-century lens. “That’s the hope,” Wood states enthusiastically. “What you don’t want . . . is distance. You want to see something that you recognize in these guys. And hopefully, after the show, you’re having a beer and you can say, ‘Man, can you imagine if we had Henry here?’”
Henry V, directed by Sally Wood and Kim Bent, produced by Lost Nation Theater. September 20-30 and October 3-7, City Hall Auditorium, Montpelier. Thursdays and Sundays at 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday, September 22, and Sunday, October 7, at 2 p.m. $20-25. Info, 229-0492.