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Henry V by William Shakespeare, directed by Des McAnuff, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

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Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. Photo by David Hou.

Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. Photo by David Hou.

Henry V
by William Shakespeare

Festival Theatre, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario
until September 29

Director – Des McAnuff
Set Designer – Robert Brill
Costume Designer – Paul Tazewell
Lighting Designer – Michael Walton
Composer – Michael Roth
Sound Designer – Peter McBoyle
Dramaturge – Robert Blacker
Choreographer – Nicola Pantin
Fight Director – Steve Rankin
Ariel Stunt Coordinator – Adrian Young
Archery – Matt Richardson
Associate Director – Lezlie Wade
Associate Costume Designer – Jenna McCutchen
Assistant Lighting Designer – Tristan Tidswell
Assistant Sound Designer – Verne Good
Assistant Dramaturge – Jacob Gallagher-Ross
Assistant Fight Director – Todd Campbell
Fight Captain – Wayne Best
Stage Manager – Maxwell T. Wilson
Assistant Stage Managers – Kathleen Harrison, Angela Marshall, Cynthia Toushan
Production Assistant – Kelsey Rae
Production Stage Manager – Margaret Palmer
Technical Director – Jeff Scollon

Cast:
The English
King Henry V – Aaron Krohn
Duke of Bedford – Ryan Field
Duke of Gloucester – Tyrone Savage
Duke of Exeter – Timothy D. Stickney
Earl of Westmorland – Stephen Russell
Archbishop of Canterbury – James Blendick
Bishop of Ely – David Collins
Lieutenant Bardolph – Randy Hughson
Ensign Pistol – Tom Rooney
Corporal Nim – Christopher Prentice
Boy – Sophia Walker
Hostess – Lucy Peacock
Earl of Cambridge – Victor Ertmanis
Lord Scrope of Masham – Dan Chameroy
Sir Thomas Grey – Roy Lewis
Captain Gower – Wayne Best
Captain Fluellen – Ben Carlson
Captain MacMorris – Keith Dinicol
Captain Jamy – Stephen Gartner
Sir Thomas Erpingham – Randy Hughson
John Bates – David Collins
Alexander Court – Roy Lewis
Michael Williams – Luke Humphrey
Earl of Salisbury – Christopher Prentice
Duke of York – Xuan Fraser

The French
King Charles VI – Richard Binsley
Queen Isabel – Claire Lautier
Louis the Dauphin – Gareth Potter
Catherine – Bethany Jillard
Alice – Deborah Hay
Montjoy – Juan Chioran
Governor of Harfleur – Dan Chameroy
Constable – Michael Blake
Duke of Orléans – Stephen Garnter
Duke of Burgundy – Xuan Fraser
Lord Rambures – Dan Chameroy
Lord Grandpré – Victor Ertmanis
Monsieur le Fer – Keith Dinicol
Messenger – Roben Hutton

 

The prologue to Henry V is not only an appeal for the audience to indulge its imagination. It is an encomium to the art of acting and its capacity to teach us how to live. It sharpens our sensibilities to the parallels between drama and reality, the stage and the world, the past and the present. It evokes sympathy in us for ourselves as much as for the actors, and it prepares us to recognize a moral lesson in every chronicle. So when he has the Chorus urge us to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; / Into a thousand parts divide on man / And make imaginary puissance,” Shakespeare puns on the plural pronoun, hinting that he is about to effect a catharsis, a flushing out of our “imperfections” in the very act of pretending that what happens on stage is real.

The contemporary relevance of this historical play is immediately evident as the actors saunter onto the stage one by one, milling around in street clothes, alternately reciting the Prologue as if lost in a desultory search for the meaning of life. Seeing them out of costume, we imagine that they are no different from ourselves just as they and we are no different from the characters they will represent. They invoke the Muse to turn the tables so that the stage becomes a kingdom, princes the actors, and monarchs the audience. The theatre is the perfect mirror for reflecting not only our humanity but our divine calling. Although the street clothes disarm us, they also raise the bar for the actors even before they put on their costumes. As they play gets underway, they must come across as heroic but human, noble but deficient, unique but stereotypical.

Tom Rooney as Ensign Pistol and Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. Photo by David Hou.

Tom Rooney as Ensign Pistol and Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. Photo by David Hou.

Des McAnuff, Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, has wanted to direct this play for some time. He began his career directing Henry IV, Part One, but a busy schedule prevented him from doing much Shakespeare since. In this production he explores the “moral fog of war” and our ambivalence in commemorating it. Henry is neither a hero nor a villain, neither above nor below the sways of human passion. He has the good of his subjects in mind, but he also knows his subjects in a way most sovereigns do not. He ate, drank, and caroused with them. He knows their weaknesses and they know his. As king, he condemns Bardolph to death for stealing, but as his friend, he pities him. Shakespeare and McAnuff set the bar high for Aaron Krohn (King Henry V) who has to navigate the terrain of his character with the same steadfastness Harry must have had as a monarch. Krohn neither plays him too hot nor too cold, neither too engaged nor too aloof. His Henry is handsome and composed, self-possessed but never self-absorbed. Rousing the troops at the Battle of Agincourt, he is fearless but not reckless. Instead of the gritty edge of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry, Krohn’s shows a rational determination to get the job done and to trust in divine providence. The lack of emotional range makes Krohn’s character seem flat at first, but as the play proceeds we realize that he is showing us a masterful politician, pushing things as far as necessary, even when it involves throwing prisoners in a pit and setting them on fire. Any hunch we have that Henry has gone too far here is ever so slightly tempered by his slight hesitation and the perfunctory way in which he and the men carry out the deed. Whereas the images from Abu Ghraib repulse us, this scene pities us. The English seem left with no alternative but to kill the prisoners and the prisoners seem to think that death is no better or worse than other alternatives. Atrocities in war shame not only the officers who command them and the soldiers who perform them, but the entire human race who gives rise to them. Once again, Shakespeare has turned the mirror on us, inviting us to self-examination and making it impossible not to implicate ourselves.

A similar ambiguity surrounds the moral character of Falstaff. We never encounter him directly in this play but are told of his death in some detail. Those who have gotten to know Falstaff from other Shakespeare plays are tempted to join the argument on stage as to what kind of man he really was. He was a rogue and a gentleman, a womanizer and a giver. Hostess Quickly (Lucy Peacock) combines the mirth and philosophical musings for which he will be immortalized when she delightfully recounts the ascertainment of his death. All the action at the “Boar’s Head” is indeed delicious.

From a technical point of view, this production is flawless — at least it seems so to the audience. The set-changes are seamless, the lighting exceptional, and the costumes exquisite. When simplicity is called for — such as when Orleans (Stephen Gartner), the Constable (Michael Blake), and the Dauphin (Gareth Potter) prattle on about the Dauphin’s magnificent horse — tall, saddled stools more than suffice. Simple banners double as sails as the English set course for the shores of France. The breach is stormed with just enough pyrotechnics and canon fire so that no spoken line is lost. McAnuff and cast show enormous expertise in not allowing the fundaments of good theatre go by the wayside.

If there is anything to find fault with in this production, it is the timing of some scenes. The unveiling of the plot of Cambridge, Grey, and Scrope, for example, begs for more strategic pauses. There is no time to squirm in our seats as the three traitors read their letters of condemnation. In his wilder days, Hal knew how to play a practical joke, and he certainly would have brought that set of skills to his statesmanship. He probably smirked for a long time before dismissing them for their death sentence and execution. This marvelous scene shines when actors slow down and use the full force of their body language to communicate to one another and the audience. Incidentally, James Blendick (Archbishop of Canterbury), Tom Rooney (Ensign Pistol), and Bethany Jillard (Catherine) excel at timing and it is a joy to behold their talent. Sophia Walker (Boy) was also masterful in her delivery.

As the curtain drops, we hear John Lennon belting “Revolution” and see the Canadian flag unfurl. Though it is unclear whether this is supposed to have some significance, it does throw us back to where the Prologue began — in today’s world with today’s questions and today’s wars. This production will not be remembered so much for superb drama or outstanding individual performances, but for the intimacy of its characters and the straightforwardness of its presentation. It is, if you like, raw Shakespeare: intelligent, reflective, and oh-so frustratingly ambiguous and up-to-date.

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