If Warlike Harry was alive today, then he had better be photogenic. While the hero of William Shakespeare's Henry V existed far from the prying eyes of the public, Jessica Bauman's multimedia retelling of the play, Into the Hazard, broadcasts its hero and its politics onto the small screen. The resulting production succeeds as a solid version of Henry V, but fails to make its intended political point. For all intents and purposes, Into the Hazard is a streamlined version of Henry V which uses Shakespeare's text almost exclusively. Like in Shakespeare's play, the newly crowned English monarch, Henry, shakes off his former reputation as a ne'er-do-well and leads a ragtag army to war in France. On the battlefield, the young king proves himself against overwhelming odds, defeating a field of French foes and claiming large swathes of France for himself. Often, Henry V has been staged as uncritically patriotic, such as in Laurence Olivier's 1944 film, but the text itself is far more ambivalent about the justice of Henry's actions. Bauman underscores this aspect of the text, ending her production with the Chorus' lines about England's subsequent bloody loss of all its newly won French lands.
Bauman was inspired to undertake her adaptation of Henry V in response to the relentless media spin which accompanied 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Into the Hazard is intended to provoke audiences to question the insidious interplay between the organs of the news and the actions of the state, Shakespeare's play does not lend itself to the reinterpretation.
Bauman's concept places a TV screen center stage. Upon entering the theater, the first thing one notices is a large television set playing a game sequence from a first person shooter set on an urban, Middle Eastern battlefield. With the help of video designer Austin Switser, Bauman has transformed certain scenes and speeches from the play into newscasts, reality shows, and documentaries, which she intersperses between the live-action scenes. Helpfully, she has added a prologue between a stuffy academic and a star-struck reporter which explains the play's complicated backstory. The video interludes are amusingly incongruous, but also occasionally illogical. For example, when a TV newscaster publicly announces the treachery of two of Henry's associates and broadcasts their mugshots, one wonders why the traitors are so shocked when they are apprehended by Henry in the next scene.
The problem is that Bauman has grafted modern assumptions onto an antique work. Speeches that were written to be played out in public (such as Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech to the troops) have been shoved into dark back rooms, drastically reducing their power. Others, which were written for private communication between the Chorus and the audience, are broadcast to the world, slathered with an irony which undercuts their poetry. In the end, the only media sequence which effectively does what Bauman intended – that is, raise questions about media spin and its relationship to war – comes at the end of the play. Immediately after a scene which portrays Henry's attentions to Katherine as akin to rape, a press conference plays in which the King of France announces the couple's marriage. The image of the blank-faced couple standing in the background is truly chilling.
The production is not helped by Nick Dillenburg's performance as Henry V. Although he cuts an appealing figure, his thoughts and motivations are impenetrable and his line delivery flip, no matter what the content of the text. Although this may suffice for playing contemporary leads, it is not satisfying in Shakespeare. Henry's lack of internal conflict and passion make the second act – which contains the king's most rousing speeches – drag. Dillenburg is much better as the callow French Dauphin, slouching, whining, and bragging his way into a disastrous war.
Fortunately, the five actors who share the rest of the roles – Erin Moon, Trevor Vaughn, David McCann, Luis Moreno, and Scott Whitehurst – are all strong. Vaughn as Pistol is both believable and charismatic, while Moreno steals every scene he is in as the garrulous Welshman Fluellen. Moon's performances of both a boy soldier and the Princess Katherine are exceptional.
Bauman has done a fine job directing her ensemble, staging the play cleanly and formally on Christopher Akerlind's spare set. Using nothing more than a metal platform, a door, two chairs, and buckets full of soil, she creates interesting and elegant stage pictures. The ensemble's methodical stacking of dead soldiers' shoes after the battle of Agincourt is particularly moving. Akerlind's simple, warm lighting design is both attractive and understated and Emily Pepper's costumes are effective and clearly delineate the many characters, even when the whole cast changes into desert fatigues for the second act.
Viewers hoping for a radical re-envisioning of Shakespeare will be disappointed. However, although Into the Hazard has not fully succeeded as a retelling of Henry V in a media age, it is a perfectly enjoyable, well-performed and carefully directed production of Shakespeare's play.