Update: The run of Henry V has been extended to April 28.
Actor/ Director Guy Roberts was going to be a painter until he saw Sir Laurence Olivier's Hamlet when he was 15.
"I literally had something like a religious conversion on the spot," he says. "Because there was this man who spoke the most beautiful words I'd ever heard, and he somehow seemed to touch my teenage soul. He had these awesome clothes, he had an incredible sword fight and he kissed two really pretty women. And I thought that's all I want of life."
Since then, Roberts has pretty much stuck with Shakespeare and it has served him well. Celebrated last year for his portrayal of venomous king Richard III in a co-production with Houston's Main Street Theater, the artistic director of the Prague Shakespeare group is back stateside with another joint venture: Henry V, which some consider the greatest war play ever written.
"After we did Richard III last year we thought maybe we should look at the other side of the history plays, a good king rather than of a bad one," Roberts says.
But being Roberts, this won't be the shined up completely heroic version of young Hal grown up as he strives to unite his kingdom. Unlike other productions, Robert has restored the parts Shakespeare wrote about Henry's betrayals of allies and cruelties to his enemies.
"One of the great things about the play now is that there is a secret play within the play where Henry engages in some really questionable behavior He hangs one of his great friends for stealing from a church, shows no mercy. He threatens citizens by saying their fathers will be taken by their silver beards, their heads dashed to the walls, babies will be spitted on pikes, daughters will be raped. He orders the killing of French prisoners against the convention of law of warfare at the time when he thinks they are losing the battle of Agincourt," Roberts said in a recent interview in Houston.
Henry is still a hero, but now the complexities of the man and the burden of being a leader are explored more fully.
"To me the play is actually from Henry's perspective about isolation. In his only speech to the audience, he talks about the great isolation and burden of being king how you are never able to please everyone. How you can never sleep at night. He's trying to do what never been done before, to unite the kingdom," Roberts says.
So how does someone from Klein High School here end up with a home base in the Czech Republic? Roberts went on to graduate from Boston University, then moved to New York where he founded the Mermaid Theatre Company, a classical theater troupe and then ended up in Austin as the artistic director of the Austin Shakespeare Festival.
Given a grant by the city of Austin to direct Macbeth with a Czech company, Roberts went to Prague and fell in love with the city and its people. "I realized how much Czechs love Shakespeare. There's a great tradition of English language Shakespeare in Prague. In 1596, 1603, and 1619 British actors from London toured through Prague when the theaters in London were closed by plague."
He relocated to Prague, formed a theater company that is now just coming off its fifth season. During this time he also forged an alliance with Rebecca Greene Udden, artistic director at Main Street and they decided to work together when the opportunity presented itself. She directed him in The Coast of Utopia and she was one of the actors he directed in Richard III. They took the co-production of Richard III to Prague several weeks after closing in Houston and in the next year, they are talking about starting a production in Prague and then coming to Houston. "It's been great for us and I hope it continues for years to come," Udden says.
"I think there's a couple of things that Guy is very good at," Udden says. "He makes what's happening very clear to the audience. And he's just really good at making things exciting and fresh."
And in the case of Henry V, he's bringing on Japanese taiko drummers who'll deliver the kind of "hard sound" Roberts thinks is appropriate for this martial, blood and guts play.
To read a longer version of this story, pick up a print copy of our publication this week. Henry V runs March 21-April
21 28 at Main Street Theater- Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard . 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For information call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com.
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