LENOX — By the time of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,’’ Prince Harry, the dissolute charmer of the “Henry IV’’ plays, has become King Henry, an untested ruler shouldering a weighty role but still trying to find his way.
Something of the same seems to be true of Ryan Winkles, who plays the young monarch in Shakespeare & Company’s bare-bones production of “Henry V,’’ directed by Jenna Ware.
Winkles does not yet have a firm fix on this admittedly contradictory character, who can be visionary and vindictive by turns. The actor conveys little sense of Henry’s inner fire or psychological complexity. His tentative performance seldom registers with the necessary charismatic force, not even in Henry’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .’’)
The upshot is that Winkles’s Henry seems nearly as callow at the end of the play as he does at the beginning, when the Dauphin of France feels free to mock him by sending him a bunch of tennis balls as a reminder of the monarch’s wayward youth, spent carousing with Falstaff. (Sir John, lamentably, does not appear in “Henry V,’’ though Shakespeare does evoke his presence with a description of his death by friends).
Director Ware demonstrates adroitness in a production that does have its strengths, but she does her star no favors by accentuating the humor of “Henry V’’ so emphatically that the play could at times be mistaken for one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Tellingly, Winkles is at his best when Henry, having conquered France, woos the French princess Katherine (Caroline Calkins) in a whimsical scene marked by language mixups.
According to press materials, this is only the second time in its 37-year history that Shakespeare & Company has presented a main stage production of “Henry V,’’ a historical drama that held a magnetic attraction for two of the finest British actors of their respective generations: Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, both of whom directed and starred in film adaptations.
Olivier portrayed Henry as a heroic swashbuckler in a 1944 version that served as a patriotic morale-booster to a nation mired in war (British schoolchildren were brought to mass screenings when it was released). Branagh offered a more broodingly inward Henry in a 1989 movie adaptation that was darker, grittier, and bloodier than Olivier’s.
There is nothing epic, deliberately so, about Ware’s “Henry V.’’ She challenges the audience’s powers of imagination, offering a scaled-down “Henry V’’ that is nearly devoid of pageantry. Most members of Ware’s eight-member cast play multiple roles. Five wooden chairs are located upstage and facing away from the audience as the play begins, and those chairs turn out to comprise much of the set, being mobilized into various configurations to represent, for instance, tents near a battlefield. Seldom have the chorus’s entreaties to the audience in the “Henry V’’ prologue — “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them. . . . For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings’’ — been more directly put to the test.
This minimalist, let-your-mind’s-eye-see-the-full-picture approach pays dividends in the climactic battle of Agincourt. When the black-clad cast faces the audience in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre and pantomimes the shooting of arrows and the clashing of swords while emitting the cries and grunts of battle, what takes shape onstage is a visceral image of war’s two faces: an experience that is simultaneously collective and deeply individual for those who do the fighting.
That scene was choreographed by cast member Sarah Jeanette Taylor, who also delivers a heartfelt portrayal of Nell Quickly. As the foppish Dauphin, David Joseph is quite funny. But the most vivid impression is made by Jonathan Croy, who was recently named the company’s co-artistic director after a period of leadership turmoil at Shakespeare & Company and is married to director Ware.
Croy excels in “Henry V,’’ whether he’s playing the Duke of Westmoreland, the King of France, or Henry’s old drinking buddy Pistol. Etching these very different characters with distinctively nuanced traits, Croy gives a performance that brings each of them utterly alive. The same, alas, cannot be said of the production’s nominal star.
Play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jenna Ware
Set, Patrick Brennan. Costumes, Govane Lohbauer. Lights, James W. Bilnoski. Sound design/composer, Andy Talen. Agincourt choreography, Sarah Jeanette Taylor.
Presented by Shakespeare & Company, at Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, through Aug. 23. Tickets $30-$60, 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.