Last weekend, in the chilly confines of Mesa Amphitheatre, an actor entreated us: "Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play." Not to worry.

After suffering through a season of Shakespearean mediocrity, Phoenix audiences should welcome a robust rendition of Shakespeare's most mature historical drama, The Life of King Henry V.

Written in 1599 at the peak of Shakespeare's powers, Henry V precedes Hamlet by only two years, during which the playwright wrote his richest comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Perhaps more than any other play except Hamlet, Henry V contains Shakespeare's most integrated use of dramatic poetry with psychology and action. Both plays center on a complex portrait of a dramatic hero, and both boast exquisitely expressed introspective soliloquies. Hamlet, however, is an action-filled play obsessed with inaction, while Henry V is a contemplative play, brooding on the moral responsibility for action--the bloody consequences of war. The siege of Harfleur and the aftermath of the battles for Caen and Agincourt provide the only external action of the play.

"Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?" asks the Chorus. In a word, no. Telling this story (particularly the battle at Agincourt) requires the sweeping panorama of the camera to truly transport an audience emotionally to the peaks of patriotic fervor.

Happily, Henry V is the subject of the two finest films yet made from Shakespeare's plays. Laurence Olivier's Academy Award-winning 1945 film glorified the spirit and courage of the English warrior, while celebrating the glories of the Elizabethan theatre. Re-creating the stage of the Globe, Olivier plays Burbage playing Henry, thereby dramatizing the British civilization that young soldiers were dying to preserve in World War II.

"On your imaginary forces, work!" urges the Chorus, and gradually Olivier's camera liberates us from the stage, transporting us to actual locations, climaxing with a zinging battle scene that features the flight of thousands of arrows "that did affright the air at Agincourt."

The Kenneth Branagh 1989 film is equally brilliant, dramatizing the brutality of war and the wily cleverness of the young king who conquered France. Branagh's Agincourt is all mud and gore, a post-Vietnam vision of the fearful costs of national policy. Branagh's stirring exhortation of "once more unto the breach, dear friends" is an acknowledgment of the stark reality of death on the field, and the courage needed to face it, rather than a call to glory.

John King's Henry owes rather more to the brashness of Branagh than the elegance of Olivier, but he captures the humor, wit and eloquence of this inspirational leader. With a grim but determined visage, he ponders his justifications for shedding the blood of his men in battle, with commitment finally edging out self-doubt.

King's King is a blunt, brusque, hardy soldier with an egalitarian air that suits his troops. "I love the bully," says the ensign Pistol, and Henry's recent rise to royalty is evident. Still feeling guilty about his father's usurpation of the throne from Richard II, Henry is unsure of his relationship to God, and therefore in his rights in this war. On the eve of Agincourt, he fearfully prays to the "Great god of battles" to deliver victory to his scrawny band of Englishmen. After the victory, he is somewhat awed: "His hand was here."

Director Randy Messersmith has delivered a spare production that keeps the focus on the hero's dilemma, never upstaging the riveting performance of his star. The stark setting by Kimb Williamson is a skeleton of steel against an enormous sky, and serves to suggest changes in locale with the use of two silk banners that tell us when we are in England, and when in France. Paul Black's lighting is again of great assistance, although I am beginning to tire of his overly simplistic use of primary colors (especially his signature blood-red cyclorama).

Messersmith and King fail the play only in the final scene with Katherine, where there is no sexual heat in the awkward wooing of a sophisticated damsel by a crude soldier. This is one of the most charming scenes in all of Shakespeare, and Olivier milked it for all the subtle grace and comedy it deserves. Here, King can do no more than play the broad outlines of the comedy, and has none of the allure that compels Katherine to accede to his advances. Messersmith has staged King to deliver most of his speeches of sexual persuasion to the audience for laughs rather than to his intended bride.

As Katherine, Natalie Hansen is charming and amusing, and quite attractive if her husband-to-be had only noticed. Shannon Kelly is also perfect as Alice, Katherine's attendant, and their scene in French is one of the highlights of the evening.

Unfortunately, Messersmith has directed the rest of the French court to speak in faux-French accents that render much of the dialogue virtually unintelligible.

Mark Tiemeyer speaks the mellifluous narration of the Chorus with ease and skill, although Messersmith frequently has him so far upstage or moving through the action with such speed that the effect of the speeches is often lost. And what glorious speeches they are! From "O, for a muse of fire!" to "Now entertain conjecture of a time" to "A little touch of Harry in the night," Shakespeare has written some of the most eloquent lines of richly descriptive verse ever to set a scene. When we can focus on them, Tiemeyer delivers the images vividly.

Effective as the comic elements are Suzy Newman as Mistress Quickly and Tim Reader, who plays a Pistol reminiscent of the great Robert Newton in the Olivier film. Best of all is the remarkably fluent Fluellen, played with perfect precision by Keith Wick. He outdoes either of the two films in making this strange character human, amusing and understandable.

All in all, the Southwest Shakespeare Company has marshaled forces to present a brawny version of this muscular play, and it is a joy to see a hearty band of actors convince us that they represent the armies of Britain and France with an honest simplicity that is refreshingly free of posing. At a moment in history when Robert McNamara has reflected regretfully on his leadership policies during the Vietnam war, this Henry V seems relevant to both the 20th anniversary of the end of that war and the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. In this production, SSC brings to life "theatre not for an age, but for all time." Celebrate Memorial Day early: Take a vet to see Henry

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marshall W. Mason