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Directors Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll imagine a Henry V performed in the First World War, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of that devastating and unnecessary war.

David Cooper

  • Title: Henry V
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Genre: History play
  • Director: Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll
  • Actors: Gray Powell
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: The Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-lake, Ont.
  • Year: Continues to October 28

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When it comes to the world wars, Shakespeare’s Henry V is most closely associated with the second one.

Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film adaptation of this historical play, in particular, continues to shape our perception of it as unabashedly patriotic. Released not long after the invasion of Normandy, the great actor/director’s screen version excised the parts where the medieval English king commits atrocities in his fight against the French and employed the play as pure morale-boosting propaganda.

At the Shaw Festival this summer, however, directors Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll imagine a Henry V performed in the First World War to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of that devastating and unnecessary war that only succeeded in setting up another. It is a setting with which Shakespeare’s play, or at least a flag-waving reading of it, seems at odds.

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The conceit is this: We’re watching a group of seven Canadian soldiers doing a run-through of Henry V to pass the time in a trench while waiting for battle. The drama’s famous prologue, delivered lustily by a soldier played by Graeme Somerville, in this context has an ironic tone: “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” In the trenches, the phrase “wooden O” conjures not the old Globe Theatre, but a circle of subterranean disease and death.

At first, Bennett and Carroll’s juxtaposition of Shakespeare and soldiers intrigues – at its best moments reminding me of Gatz, the celebrated show by New York’s Elevator Repair Service company, in which an office worker reads the entirety of The Great Gatsby (for eight hours) while waiting for IT to show up to fix his computer.

Here too, there is a game for the audience of watching one thing while listening to another – and seeing where the “fictional” and “real” worlds align and where they don’t.

Take, for instance, the speech by Henry at the gates of Harfleur, where he frightens the French town into surrendering with the threat of English soldiers “mowing like grass / your fresh-far virgins and your flowering infants.”

Here, the soldier playing Henry (Gray Powell, wonderful throughout) recites his list of war crimes with cold calculation as he casually plays the card game War with a younger soldier playing a Frenchman (a boyish Cameron Grant) – who is appalled as he visualizes the brutalities that Shakespeare is conjuring up. (Up close in the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, currently arranged in the round like a mini-version of Stratford Festival’s temporarily shuttered Tom Patterson theatre, you are close enough to be impressed that the actors are genuinely playing the card game as they act this multilayered scene.)

In another complex moment, the soldier playing the French princess Katharine (the fine actor Damien Atkins) performs the comic scene where she learns English words like hand and elbow. As he takes on this feminine character, you get the sense of a soldier being liberated from the macho role he has to perform in the army – and perhaps being allowed to express a part of himself to his brothers in arms that he’d otherwise have to keep hidden. That this is the moment the soldiers' play-acting is interrupted hurts the heart.

I’d have only positive things to say about this Henry V had it ended right here – Shakespeare’s jingoistic (according to Bernard Shaw, anyway) play about war, left unfinished by the reality of it.

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When we return after intermission, however, we are in the company of six wounded men in a field hospital. (The seventh appears briefly to read audience anecdotes about war left on cards during intermission, diluting his disappearance.) The soldiers pick up their rehearsal of Henry V where they left off, with the help of four nurses.

The first act had an air of plausibility: Trench warfare was marked as much, if not more, by tedium as it was by terror, so why not run lines? The second one seems like a fantasy.

In Camellia Koo’s design and Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, the hospital and the nurses' uniforms are oddly immaculate and bright. The nurses themselves seem not overworked professionals at war, but mother figures and potential romantic interests with plenty of time to sit and perform Shakespeare with the boys (and even knit a bit) while on duty.

Despite showing us soldiers wounded, both physically and psychologically, there’s something pat and sanitized about the rehearsal now. Rather than Henry V’s military triumph ringing hollowly or bitterly, the play’s performance seems to aid in healing. The “band of brothers” sentimentality that sometimes pops up in the first act overwhelms the second.

The directors don’t do enough to show us why these gassed and shell-shocked soldiers are still compelled to perform (nearly unabridged) a play that, to many, propagates what Wilfred Owen called “the Old Lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."

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