With a production of "Henry V" by its new artistic director, Peter Coe, it appears the American Shakespeare Theater has finally begun to turn itself around.
The theater has weathered typhoons that would have scuttled a less resilient vessel. After several seasons of misguided attempts or no attempts at all, things look downright promising, even important, at Stratford this year.
Mr. Coe has had the sensible idea of featuring Christopher Plummer in the title role of Shakespeare's apparently straight forward historical study. The play seems so blunt at times that it was readily made into a timely, jingoistic tract by Laurence Olivier at a time when Britons needed the reassurance that Britain was always honorale and triumphant. But that jingoism, as well as the broad epic nature of the Olivier version, has mightily damaged most current viewpoints of the play. For the Bard is not giving us empty battle hysteria, or sword- clashing beroics, but a considerably more intimate, searching framework for his play.
Mr. Coe's solution for bringing his staging more into line with Shakespeare's intent was to place the drama on a genuine Elizabethan stage (handsomely designed by Robert Fletcher, superby lit by Marc B. Weiss). It is much like the Old Globe is known to have been, with balconies, trapdoors, and a rather cramped confined feeling. This way the actors, with a minimum of scenery and props, are allowed through words and historianics to conjure up the scene at hand.
With the exception of the superbly staged siege on Harfleur, we see little actual battle, for Henry V is no longer the swashbuckling Prince Hal of the two Henry Ivs whom the playright put squarely into heroic battle. In "Henry V" most of that epic sprawl is confined to the wings, and consciences are studied and juxtaposed front- stage center.
Coe has perhaps not emphasized the ironies and ambivalences in this play as he might have, giving us something more of a compromise -- a theatergoer's "Henry" rather than a thinker's "Henry." But geniune thinking producitons are better left to a time when the festival has established itself as a consistent ensemble. Here we have good vs. bad, English vs. French, very clearly put forth while still leaving room for questioning and ambivalences.
Plummer is altogether magnificient. He assumes the role of both Henry and the Chorus -- which seem confusing at first, but in truth only heightens the theatrical artifice that animates this play. It forces the audience to use its imagination rather than have everything spoon-fed, as has become the general theatrical custom of late.
One could argue that Mr. Plummer is no longer the embodiment of ready youth the play calls for -- one who has just shed the trappings of rascally Hal to become the king of the land. But one soon forgets such details as one is swept into this character wholesale. It is a gloriously theatricalm performance, full of ringing cadences, grand gestures, stunning introspection, all gauged for a stage, not a screen, and one redolent with importance and meaning.
Plummer is the star of this show because he is a great actor and he holds the stage vividly, thrillingly, as Henry must. Anyone who has seen an inexperienced youth in this role will know just how dull a play it can be without a galvanizing performer at the focal point.
Plummer is handsomely supported by a mainly fine cast, but it is Plummer's show, as it must be. His bounding confidence (tenored by the signs of repressed anxiety) of the opening scenes gives way to gloomy introspection during the French conquest -- with shakespeare at his most intimate and revealing, and Plummer sounding so many resonances. The wooing scene is all surface charm, with a stubborn willfulness bubbling precariously close to the surface. In short, Plummer's Henry evinces serious inner conflicts that never really find peace. His is a genuine Shakespearean heroic performance, one that sets a new tone at Stratford and bodes uncommonly well for the future.
"Henry V" runs through Aug. 2, with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 and Sundays at 3. The next production, beginning Aug. 5, is of "Othello," with James Earl Jones in the title role and Mr. Plummer as Iago.