From left: Aaron Krohn as King Henry V, Bethany Jillard as Catherine, Richard Binsley as King Charles VI, Claire Lautier as Queen Isabel and Xuan Fraser as the Duke of Burgundy with members of the company in Henry V. Photography by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas
Henry V is the third and final play by William Shakespeare offered by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this year. Yes, that makes it three out of fourteen but that’s how the cookie crumbles and you can stick Charlie Brown up your nose.
The production is directed by Des McAnuff, the Festival’s Artistic Director, and expectations are high. It is his last production as Artistic Director and no doubt he wants to go out with a bang. Unfortunately the final result falls somewhat short of any hopes of theatrical achievement in Shakespearean production. To put it more succinctly, McAnuff’s production registers more as a whimper. It combines the worst traits of Stratfordian productions with none of the virtues to counterbalance them. No doubt I should add polite qualifiers such as “perhaps” or “some” or “most” but the production is fresh in my mind and such politesse seems unnecessary.
Henry V opens with a character called the Chorus who delivers a colourful Prologue lamenting that so grand a subject as the story of the warrior king is to be told on the “unworthy scaffold” of a theatre. The speech can be delivered with rhetorical flourishes and thus kick start the play.
When the lights went on in the current production, a couple of dozen actors, dressed in their street clothes, sauntered on to the stage, some carrying stools and about a dozen of them recited a couple of lines or so of the Prologue. It looked like a first rehearsal and the director was sounding out the actors to see who is suitable for what role.
The Chorus may lament that the stage is not big enough for so large a subject but McAnuff will have none of that. He thinks he can create enough energy, motion and sheer theatrical excitement to make the Chorus eat his words.
Shakespeare’s text is not always easy on an audience and directors frequently try to alleviate that difficulty by creating stage business. Have characters run on and off the stage, add trumpets, trombones, noise effects, anything, to keep the audience’s attention.
In this production, McAnuff adds so many such tricks that the text seemed to interfere with the pageantry at times. Disrespect for the text by using sundry devices is what I mean by Stratfordian “vices”.
We expect to hear Shakespeare’s language delivered by actors who know the difference between poetry and prose and can give us some of the rhythm of the iambic pentameters. In this production most of the actors seemed tone deaf. Some of them like Richard Bonsley as King Charles VI spoke so quickly one, wondered if he was just trying to finish his shift.
Aaron Krohn as Henry V must take most of the opprobrium for delivering a flat, uninspired performance. He has some great speeches but he could not (or was not allowed) to deliver even a decent rhyming couplet. He lacked any stage presence and despite and perhaps because of all the noise and hoopla around him, gave a performance below any level that we have the right to expect from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
There is a funny English lesson that Catherine (Bethany Jillard), the daughter of Kong Charles gets from Alice (Deborah Hay), her lady-in-waiting. The scene contains some very raunchy language, not all of it easy to understand today, but there is one word that is crystal clear and it is contained in the word Count. McAnuff buries the joke. The irony is that Catherine is shown naked in a bathtub. He is willing to give us a bit of flesh but the text is not that important.
Falstaff’s companions (Randy Hughson, Tom Rooney, Christopher Prentice and Sophia Walker) were very good as the low class and sometimes low-life Londoners. The best was Lucy peacock as the Hostess who captured the rhythm and emotional wavelength of the language and the character in an exceptional performance. It was not enough to save the production.
McAnuff brings everything on the stage: flags, banners, cannons, a hanging, a chorus to sing and battle scenes. All the stuff that the Chorus (the speaking character, not the singers), wanted us to imagine.
We may have been forgiving if all of that were accompanied by a few more actors who could speak Shakespeare with the poetic feel that all his language requires. In other words, if McAnuff had started with the text, paid it due respect and then went for the paraphernalia that every director must bring to his interpretation of the play.
In the end we got a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little.
Henry V by William Shakespeare opened on July 13 and will run in repertory until September 29, 2012 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca