BRATTLEBORO -- Fighting for his life, sword clashing furiously with his opponent’s, the young king probably doesn’t hear his fans cheering for him.
"Get him, Hank, get him!" yells one fan. Others join in.
Mortal combat is par for the course at Living Memorial Park these days, as the Vermont Theatre Company puts the finishing touches in its 23rd annual Shakespeare in the Park. Performances of "Henry V," open tonight on the Rotary Stage at Living Memorial Park and run through Sunday at 6 p.m.
Shakespeare’s third most popular play (hey, it’s hard to beat "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet"), "Henry V" is the story of the transformation of a dashing young prince into a wise and just king. Yes, Hank or Harry, as his followers call him, has his faults, but he is a popular, charismatic leader.
"If there was a baseball card of Harry, I would have every single one of them," adds Jodi Clark, speaking as her character, Fluellen.
Clark also fills another role, that of fight director, an important job for a play which focuses on events around the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Year’s War and has epic fight scenes.
"It’s the choreography, and it’s the design of the violence," said Clark, explaining what a fight director does. "It’s about what the violence tells as a story. It’s not gratuitous violence."
Indeed, "Henry V" has more to it than violence. A lot more,
"Henry V" is a feast.
"It has awesome epic battles. It has Shakespeare’s best love scene. ... There’s high drama," said Callahan. "It’s got swords. It’s got princesses. It’s got fools, and it’s got lots of passion. I’d want to come see it."
At its heart, it’s got Henry, played by James Gelter, a veteran of seven Shakespeare in the Park productions.
"It’s a major role because it’s a powerhouse," said Gelter. "Sometimes he gets criticized for not being as fascinating a character as some of the others, but I disagree."
As Henry V, Gelter gets to sink his teeth into two of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues -- "One more unto the breach" and The St. Crispin’s Day’s speech ("we few, we happy few, we band of brothers").
"Any speech in any war movie you ever see owes something to the St. Crispin’s Day speech," said Gelter. "The largest, and I think most relevant theme to our time is justifying a cause for war. If a leader demands a cause for war, must we just follow him?"
In the long history of "Henry V," the theme of war has been treated many ways. In Laurence Olivier’s film version, produced during World War II, the tone was decidedly pro-war. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version takes a different view. Scholars say Shakespeare was deliberately ambiguous about war in this play.
To examine this issue, Callahan and VTC held a panel discussion a few months ago with five local veterans of five different wars.
"They all had different perspectives on what it means to go to war. War is not one thing. It happens, and it changes people," said Callahan.
What war does to people is certainly one of the themes VTC is hoping to bring out.
"Even though the show is called ‘Henry V’, it explores how his decisions affect everybody. All the steps of society are represented," Gelter said.
Shakespeare has created a teeming world of characters and passions, and the VTC production aims to bring them all to vivid existence.
"Just as Henry relies on his soldiers, I rely on the cast. This is the most dedicated and giving cast I’ve ever worked with," Gelter said.
"Henry V" has a cast of 27, ranging in age from 12 to past 60. They’ve been abetted by Todd Roach, who has composed music and plays drums during the performance, dramaturge Cameron Cobane, as well as musicians Will Thomas Rowan and Lynn Mahoney Rowan.
And, of course, Clark, who has helped bring the fight scenes to glorious life, with one very un-warlike rule to guide her.
"You make sure everyone is safe. No battle is worth anybody’s safety and health," she said.
So that’s why rehearsal last Friday began with vigorous, careful run-throughs of the fight scenes ... swords clashing, soldiers dashing, fans cheering.
"This is bigger than any stage combat I’ve done before," said Ben Stockman, who plays Exeter. "It’s definitely fun. ... It’s a great workout, too."
Admission to "Henry V" is $5 for all, except babes in arms and toddlers, who are free. Reservations are not necessary; all tickets sold at the door. Arrive early and enjoy a picnic on the grass in the warm early evening sunshine in front of the Rotary Stage in Living Memorial Park. Show sponsors include King Arthur Flour and Vermont Country Deli.
For more information, visit www.vermonttheatrecompany.com.