By Holli Harms
We few, we happy few, who get to witness the Mobile Unit in all their glory performing Shakespeare’s most accessible and patriotic of history plays, Henry V. King Harry is Shakespeare’s ideal leader. He is everything you want in a king; brave, caring of his people, strong and a great speaker. Able in his St. Crispin’s Day speech to bring the small, but determined English army to follow him into battle. The speech, one of Shakespeare’s most noted, tells of the art of war, the pride of being a man battling for his country.
Before each Mobile Unit performance it’s Program Director, Stephanie Ybarra, comes out and asks the audience some questions pertaining to that particular production. For Henry V she asks, “Have you ever had to step up when you didn’t want to? Have you ever been underestimated? Have you ever been outraged when someone sends you tennis balls?” And that question is what, in the play, sparks the outrage in Henry V and consequentially leads to his victory at Agincourt against the French Army.
Warfare at the time of Henry V was a man’s game. And though women make up a large percentage of our military today I argue that war is still a man’s game, so to have an African American woman play the lead role of Henry V is intriguing, and you might think distracting, but no no No! In the hands of Zenzi Williams Henry V is simply Henry, struggling with his position as king, leader and now the one taking his people into a bloody campaign where the odds are stacked against them. In her hands we watch Harry the boy – the joke of the nobility, become a man and a king. Yet in all of that, he is still completely human and questions himself, asks for help, for guidance. Her Henry is taking in and remembering who is loyal, who treasons, and who’s friendship is questionable. For all his glory as a king, Henry is still susceptible to pride, jealousy, greed, and ambition.
Zenzi Williams is remarkable. As is the rest of this ensemble. Carolyn Ketting as Katherine Princess of France is outrageously funny in the learning English scene. Her Katherine is young, spoiled and smart. The scene always funny as the character of Katherine makes her way through the English language, mulling the words in her mouth like marbles and spitting them out with disdain is knee slapping in Ketting’s hands. And you must admit in French everything sounds magical and lyrical and often English can sound clunky and silly – “Elbow” IS a funny word, like 23 is a funny number.
War, the complexities of it, the greed of it, and this battle over land that Henry says is England’s, and the loss of it, are all played out beautifully in this most exceptional of Shakespearean plays.
This production has humor and joy and fun and battle cries and is such a great way to bring your child, ten and older, to their first Shakespeare or their 20th. Joe Papp believed that Shakespeare should be for everyone and this production, as with all of the Mobile Unit’s is just that.
Running Time: approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
With: Michael Bradley Cohen, Leland Fowler, Patrice Johnson, Carolyn Kettig, Ariel Shafir, David Ryan Smith, Joe Tapper, Zenzi Williams, and Kim Wong
Scenic and Costume Design Clint Amos, Original Music Elisheba Ittoop, Stage Manager Fatimah Amill, Fight Captain, Michael Bradley Cohen, Program Director Stephanie Ybarra
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003