NEW YORK — "Henry V" is Shakespeare's consummate play about war, so it's natural to assume that a new American production would take into account the conflict in Iraq. The play's image as a rousing pro-war tract may have been why copies were reportedly distributed to US troops headed to Iraq.
Sir Laurence Olivier's 1945 film version played up Henry's patriotic speeches and his call to band together to take up arms against a perceived evil. A different production this summer at London's National Theatre sets the play in the present day and has a strongly antiwar flavor, according to reviews in the British press.
An American production that opened Tuesday in New York aims not to be an obvious polemic for or against the Iraq war, says its British director, Mark Wing-Davey. Instead, it shows us the genius of Shakespeare, who can write rousing speeches urging troops to fight like tigers ("once more unto the breach, my friends"), idolize wartime camaraderie ("we few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), and yet end his play with a remarkable epilogue noting that only a few years after Henry's triumphs all his conquered lands in France would be lost and his own England made to "bleed" in further wars.
"It seems to me that the play itself does have an undercurrent that is self-critical," says Mr. Wing-Davey in an interview at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park. "It is both a hero play and a criticism of hero plays, if you like." ("Henry V," part of the Public Theater's annual tradition of presenting Shakespeare in Central Park, runs through Aug. 9.)
Wing-Davey made a decision to "stay away from Iraq in completely obvious terms," including cutting some lines that he thought too easily could be seen as referring to it. But he also acknowledges inevitable comparisons.
One intended influence occurs early in the play when the archbishop seeks to show Henry and his cabinet that Henry has the right to start a war with France because he is the rightful heir to the French throne. To do this, the archbishop uses a series of display cards with complex diagrams, which Wing-Davey acknowledges were a nod to Colin Powell's appearance at the United Nations seeking to justify the US war on Iraq.
The play's conclusion also gives present-day food for thought. When a country undertakes a war, Wing-Davey says, "you don't know what you are reaping.
"We don't know now about the consequences of the war in Iraq," he says. "We have a right to be nervous about it, at least. And Shakespeare is rather wonderful" in pointing that out.
Liev Schreiber plays Henry, winning praise for the role from The New York Times as "American theater's finest young interpreter of Shakespeare." Most Americans might recognize Mr. Schreiber from movies such as "Kate & Leopold," "The Sum of All Fears," and the "Scream" series.
Wearing a T-shirt and shorts and sitting in the warm afternoon sun before a performance, he says he wasn't enthusiastic at first about playing what he thought was a one-dimensional heroic figure. But as he looked more closely, he says he realized this was a "play we need to be doing now."
Henry, he says, "asks the question, What is national pride? And I think that's an interesting idea for Americans to be stewing around with: What does it mean to be American? Not only here, but in France or England or Baghdad?"
Shakespeare's brilliance in "Henry V," he says, lies in its duality and irony. "In a patriotic play, a heroic play, he always includes the other argument" about the costs of going to war, Schreiber says.
The center of the play is not in the fiery speeches at the battles of Harfleur and Agincourt, he says, but when Henry disguises himself and moves about through his troops, learning that he is not quite as popular as he thought. Henry "confronts the reality of not only losing his life, but of sacrificing the lives of others - to what end and for what cause? And I think that connects him back to his sense of humanity."
Henry, as Schreiber plays him, Wing-Davey adds, "has a kind of real struggle in him, rather than somebody who's gotten his life sorted out."
Compared with Henry, who often hides his feelings, "I think Hamlet is a relatively easy role," Schreiber says. "He wears his emotions on his sleeve." With Henry, "The agenda is not clear. You really have to make a decision as an actor and a director about what you want to do with him."
If Henry's military triumph is only fleeting, then where does Shakespeare send us for a sense of hope? Schreiber says he thinks Henry's awkward, boyish wooing of the French Princess Katherine, the last scene, contains that hopeful note, showing Henry's humanity and vulnerability.
Shakespeare asks, "How do we get out of that cycle" of war and destruction? Schreiber says. Well, there's always this thing called love. "That's the note that he leaves the character on. And I love that."