“Upon the King”: The Duty of Playing Henry V
In 1995, I found myself performing four Shakespearean shows in repertory on an international tour with Shenandoah Shakespeare (now known as the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia). I had recently learned that the company’s next season would include my second-favorite play (and role) in Shakespeare’s canon—Henry V—and I wanted it. Badly. I determined to do everything in my power that season to prove I was the perfect choice to play the following year’s Hero-King.
I had private readings with the Artistic Director to demonstrate my understanding of the role. I worked out like a madman, in order to “bulk up” and look more like a soldier. And when our tour brought us to Paris, France, for five days, I made an arduous journey to do homage at the not-so-nearby Chateau de Vincennes—where, in a small, non-descript stone room, Henry passed away in 1422 at the ripe old age of 35. In that very room, I solitarily recited the famous speeches from Shakespeare’s play—“Once More Unto the Breach”, “Upon the King”, and “St. Crispin’s Day”. I was certain the spirit of Henry himself was looking down on me, anointing me. By the time auditions arrived in the fall, I was convinced the role would be mine.
It wouldn’t. The part went instead to an ultra-handsome, chiseled-featured actor, dripping with soap-opera sexiness. When I saw him in the show several months later, he was clearly bored with it, and walked through it with a sense of tedium as if it were interrupting his golf game. It not only broke my heart, it offended my sense of responsibility that an actor should feel when taking on such a legendary play and part. I vowed then and there that one day I would avenge myself-–and that production—by playing Henry V with the passion and sense of duty it deserves.
Flash forward nearly two decades. My friends at Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company have offered me the lifetime chance to fulfill that promise by finally taking on the French at Agincourt. It’s a dream long-coming, which has only deepened my sense of responsibility.
Beyond the desire to honor Shakespeare’s exquisite words—some of the best-written and best-known of all his passages—one feels the weight and legacy of the Great Actors who have worn the iconic red and blue tunic before him—Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Kenneth Branagh, just to name a few. When there is this much history surrounding a role—this much expectation—one feels the acute obligation to get it right. Nearly daunting as Agincourt itself.
It helps immensely to have directors with Olivieric (Branaghian?) understanding of the play, which we have joyfully found in Francis and Angela Boyle. Then, too, it’s instrumental to have a fellow cast who, through their talent and generosity, make you genuinely feel they would go to war beside you. I have been so blessed among these gifted, happy few.
In the end, while I dearly hope we resoundingly “get it right” for our audience—to do justice to a King’s achievements, a Poet’s words, and a great Theatrical tradition—I like to think I have fulfilled my promise in any case. I approach this play and this role with the greatest reverence, the utmost passion, and the deepest gratitude imaginable. And it is my secret hope that Henry has shifted his gaze from that room in Vincennes twenty years ago to our little space in Grand Rapids today…and will once more give us his blessing.