Is Henry V a patriotic tribute to a great military leader, or an ironic critique of nationalism and jingoism?
It is neither, of course, but productions of this history play tend to simplify it in one direction or the other.
There’s Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film, most obviously, with the young English king’s battlefield triumphs emphasized and his cavalier execution of French prisoners excised. Similarly, of the five previous productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, all but one either removed or elided over that troubling war crime.
In Stratford’s sixth kick at the can, director Des McAnuff makes the terrifying most of that scene, however, burning the PoWs alive in a pit in the centre of the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage.
And yet, his production is not obviously antiwar either. Indeed, it is ambiguous, contradictory, and jerks the audience’s sympathies to and fro. Which is to say that it is absolutely true to the complexities of what William Shakespeare wrote (and war itself).
Henry V, the last of McAnuff’s Shakespearean productions as artistic director of Stratford, is also his most mature. It might even have been counted as his best, were it not for Aaron Krohn’s puzzlingly detached portrait of the boyish king who wages war on his French-speaking neighbours at its centre.
And yet, that underwhelming performance is not an insurmountable problem as this is not a one-man show, but ensemble storytelling.
McAnuff opens with his cast in contemporary outfits, spread out over a giant, menacing wooden drawbridge designed by Robert Brill and made to rumble ominously by sound designer Peter McBoyle.
One actor is in a Team Canada jersey, while another is in a hipster T-shirt emblazoned with the classic CBC logo. With these nods to two different styles of Canadian nationalism, McAnuff implicates any audience member who thinks himself above such patriotic cries such as, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”
Festival favourite Tom Rooney delivers the opening line – “O, for a muse of fire” – but then the prologue is passed from performer to performer like a baton. Indeed, all of the chorus’s speeches are split up in this way, spoken in snippets as English court shifts to the French court, as village moves to battlefield, each new scene biting at the heels of the previous one.
This is a fast-paced production that never slackens without purpose; it, as the chorus line goes, “flies in motion of no less celerity than that of thought.”
The quickest thinker on stage is Krohn, who plays King Henry as the smartest guy in the room. A scene-stealer in The Homecoming last year, the American actor spits out Shakespeare’s text at a breakneck speed, but always marries each word to a thought.
His King Henry is oddly nonchalant here in his decision to go to war, though, and, more problematically, he’s not convincing when he sells the mission to us. Indeed, during “once more unto the breach, dear friends,” the soldiers begin to leave before he’s even done speechifying. Here is a leader who is followed presumably only because he must be followed, more believable at wooing than warring.
The most alluring aspect of Krohn’s interpretation of the grown-up Prince Hal is the way he draws attention to each of his references to God by blinking purposefully, then casting his eyes upwards wildly, in a kind of religious possession. It’s an impressive move, but, after a certain amount of repetition, it begins to make you think of a groundhog emerging from his hole and momentarily flinching from the sunlight.
Add in the breezy, chipper, almost weatherman-like delivery of famous speeches like “we few, we happy few,” and Krohn is surely the first actor to play Henry V with a hint of Wiarton Willie to him. (”If Crispian’s day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.”)
The more genuinely stirring performances come from his erstwhile drinking buddies, the late Falstaff’s cohorts Pistol (a roughly funny, then unexpectedly moving Rooney), the bugle-nosed Bardolph (Randy Hughson, who gets better each season) and their “boy” (a touching Sophia Walker). The fat knight, though dead, makes a memorable cameo of sorts in a giant coffin that needs an inordinate number of pallbearers to be carried.
There’s also charm to be found in Bethany Jillard’s French princess Catherine, who receives language instruction in the bath and holds out each delectable body part as she learns its English name.
Indeed, the whole French court is impressive, the most extraordinary scene of the production taking place on enemy ground with the Dauphin (a beguiling Gareth Potter) and several other aristocrats (Michael Blake, Dan Chameroy and Stephen Gartner, all excellent).
Here, immediately after intermission, McAnuff’s production finally takes a breath as we watch these Frenchmen sit on horses (conjured simply with scaffolding and saddles) as they await the dawn and the Battle of Agincourt that will decimate them. “Will it never be morning?” is the atmospheric scene’s haunting refrain. Anticipation and fear permeates the theatre.
There are other smart pieces of staging, notably the chilling way McAnuff cuts to intermission – which I’d hate to spoil.
At the end of the play, he nudges us back to today, replacing the giant English and French flags that have been the backdrop for so many scenes with a Canadian one – another delicious moment of uneasy ambiguity. Only when the Beatles’ Revolution blasts as we exit the theatre does McAnuff ever tip his hand as to a possible moral to this story.