Prague Shakespeare Company founder and Houston native Guy Roberts was artistic director of the Austin Shakespeare Festival in 2007, when that city gave him a grant to direct a production of MacBeth in Prague. He fell in love with the city, which did not have its own professional English-language theater company … so, he started one.
Now in its fifth year, the Prague Shakespeare Company shares its theater, on a Countess’s estate, with the National Theater of the Czech Republic. The Houston-based cast of Henry V will perform there next fall.
Roberts says the play about England’s unlikely 15th century victory over superior French forces in the Battle of Agincourt — resonates with a 21st century audience.
“I think Shakespeare really helps us out. This play was written in 1599. And it comes at a period of Shakespeare’s writing where he was having this enormous creative burst. He wrote it at the same time he was writing Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and working on Hamlet. And the language in those four plays is so accessible. I mean, people are quoting Henry V all the time, and they don’t even know it.”
(Henry V – Olivier clip)
(Henry V – Branagh clip)
“I don’t think it’s an accident that both Olivier’s Henry V, Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Henry V, and the recent BBC version of Henry V are such successful movie versions. It is very much like a film in its pacing.”
But how do you take such an epic story and make it work in a small Houston theater? Prague Shakespeare Company co-owner Jessica Boone:
“He’s got these fabulous chorus speeches that are really beautifully written. And they’re basically saying, ‘hey audience, we’re doing a play. We really need you to pretend. We’re not trying to do the movie version, we’re working on your imaginary forces. I think it really lends a lot of freedom to play and not feel like you have to be — like you’re trying to do the movie version in this small, intimate space. It allows for a lot of freedoms creatively.”
(Roberts – St Crispian’s Day excerpt)
Main Street Theater Executive Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden notes a lot of the themes Shakespeare explores in the play resonate today.
“He’s talking about such universal things. And when those soldiers start talking about dying in battle — I mean, I’m weeping every night. It’s so universal. Especially now, when we have to deal with so much in our public life about soldiers and veterans and the costs of war.”
Which is not to say Henry V is only about war. There’s a love story, too.
(Henry and Catherine excerpt)
Guy Roberts: “And so the combination of the language, the episodic nature of the scenes, and the fact that it’s got a lot of action, and great battles, and then there’s this fantastic love story. It’s kind of everything you can want in a play.”
Henry V continues at the Main Street Theater through April 28th. More information at mainstreettheater.com.