It’s not often that as a theatergoer you get to traipse around a deserted island, sail across the New York Harbor, or enter a real live fort when watching a play. Actually, make that two forts. New York Classical Theatre partners with the River To River Festival for a unique land-and-sea production of William Shakespeare’s Henry V that includes free ferry rides back and forth to Governors Island.
Most Shakespeare aficionados know the earlier part of King Henry’s story, laid out in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, when the ruler was a wayward, affable young lad called Prince Hal. But Henry V is less known, so all attendees are encouraged to read the “If you’re just joining us…” section of the program for a brief synopsis, which sets up the main crux of the story — a war between the English and the French.
Utilizing their signature “panoramic theater” style, NYCT begins the production at the historic Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which stands in for King Henry’s England. Audience members are led from place to place and scene to scene about every five to ten minutes, with ensemble members directing the crowd of up to 500 spectators to the next location. The text has been substantially cut, with about one and half hours of the two-and-half-hour running time devoted to the play itself.
When Henry (called “Harry” at this point in his life) rallies the troops to engage in battle with France, the audience itself becomes his army, led onto an awaiting ferry that whisks cast, crew, and spectators to Governors Island, which stands in for France.
The scale of the production is both challenging and limiting. Utilizing locations in lower Manhattan, the ferry itself, and the former military base in the heart of New York Harbor, the evening is in all honesty a bit exhausting. The many children in the audience loved running to the next bit, but many of the older adults lagged behind, missing the start of many scenes.
The ferry ride transitions were particularly prolonged — calculate how much time it takes to load and unload hundreds of people. The scenes on the ferry each way were mostly lost to all but the few people who sat inside the boat itself. Most of the audience were clamoring for topside views of the downtown skyline.
Astute audience members may ascertain that Henry is actually a warmonger and imperialist, but the early scenes are so fast-paced that it is hard to tell what is going on. The realities of the story are washed over in the spectacle of the presentation, which, though impressive, dilutes the complexity of Shakespeare’s play.
Choosing Henry V is a risky choice that doesn’t really pay off. Many of the characters become lost in a haze of accents. And the accents, for the most part, are pretty awful. It is impossible to sift the Welsh from the English, the Scottish from the Irish. And the raucous trio of British brutes — Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph — are sadly interchangeable and a lot less humorous than the boisterous Falstaff from the middle two plays of the tetralogy (which started with Richard II).
The French accents, in particular, are overdone and cartoon-like, much like the characterizations of the French in general. The Dauphin in particular comes off as a foppish, villainous cross between Pepé le Pew and Inspector Clouseau.
Only Montjoy (the excellent Ian Antal) offers a proper French accent coupled with an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a Frenchmen. His scenes with King Henry (an outstanding Justin Blanchard) are the most memorable in an evening more memorable for the locations than the locution.
The intrigue and political machinations of Henry V may be lost in NYCT’s ambitious production, but audience members young and old eagerly joined in the patriotic spirit on the ferry ride to Governors Island and during the decisive battles.
Overall, Henry V is truly an enjoyable evening from the always clever New York Classical Theatre company. But as Hamlet, the Bard’s most iconic character, would emphasize, “the play’s the thing.” And NYCT’s Henry V is really more about the gorgeous twilight ferry ride to and from Governors Island and the novelty of site specific theater than the play itself.