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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review: McAnuff's Henry V an Impressive but not perfect Swan Song

From left to right: Timothy D. Stickney as Exeter, David Collins as Ely, Aaron Krohn as Henry V,
James Blendick as Centerbury, Tyrone Savage as Gloucester and Stephen Russell as Westmorland.
Photo by David Hou.

Henry V by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Designed by Robert Brill and Paul Tazewell

The story: Newly crowned King Henry V (formerly the roguish Prince Hal), is convinced by an ancient law to reclaim certain provinces from the King of France. He gathers an army to invade France which includes old cronies from his wayward youth, although the King has forsworn them. He is outnumbered by a better-equipped French army, but the King rouses his troops again and again until they soundly defeat their French foes during the Battle of Agincourt.

One of the problems with this play is that Henry V (as Shakespeare has drawn him) is a bit of a bastard - he is a master manipulator, pitiless to former friends, a guy who passes the buck, but posesses some charismatic righteousness that convinces friend and foe of his might. But he is the only well-rounded character in a huge cast, so the actor playing him had better be able to carry it off.

One of the frustrations with this production is that Aaron Krohn, who plays Henry V, is very nearly sabotaged by it, so the audience does not get to see his power in the role until the second half of the play - and anyone who saw last year's The Homecoming knows he has power as an actor. But. Having to circle massive, often moving props and people while a distracting - and at times audibly painful - baseline underscores his speeches, several of which are delivered too quickly for comprehension, Mr. Krohn is lost in the set and swirl of activity around him, and some key speeches are lost with him. It is a case of art imitating life - just as the French underestimate Henry V, director Des McAnuff has underestimated the strength of his cast. Again.

Aaron Krohn as Henry V.
Photo by David Hou.
Because when left to his own devices, without props moving around him, without a musical score, and allowed to slow down, Mr. Krohn delivers a perfectly wonderful King Harry, manipulating the text as well as Henry manipulates his men. At intermission one asks, "Why is the high constable of France worried about this guy?" By the end of the play, one thinks, "Ah. That's why. But why didn't we see this guy sooner?" Indeed.

Mr. McAnuff likes to do things BIG, Broadway-big. So the set is impressive, complete with a fully articulated drawbridge that is ramp, platform and balcony all in one, the French and English banners cover the entire stage, and there are (count 'em) nine trap doors in the raked stage that act as prop-movers, fire pits, and execution chambers. Very exciting stuff. But it is too big and too exciting, riding roughshod over the actors trying to perform - Lucy Peacock does not need a soundtrack to evoke sympathy for Falstaff's death. Performances are wasted, critical moments are lost, and so in the end is Mr. McAnuff's own stated purpose, to show the moral ambiguity that occurs in the "fog of war".

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

That being said, there are wonderful moments of theatre. The St. Crispin Day speech takes place at the very edge of the stage, giving great intimacy to his words, the audience becoming the main body of Henry's troops. The arguments between Harry and a soldier (played with great conviction by LukeHumphrey) are the only moments where the King is called upon to be accountable for his soldiers' lives - and the only time we see Mr. Krohn let Henry's confidence falter. The wooing scene of the French princess Catherine is sweet and funny and entirely human (he starts when her father reappears, like any man proposing marriage). The entire cast is the chorus but Mr. Krohn is not included until the end, and so he gives his own epilogue. It is a smart, emphatic way to end the show, given that the epilogue is an anti-climactic telling of how France was lost again, by the very next generation.

Deborah Hay as Alice and Bethany Jilliard as Catherine.
Photo by David Hou.
There are many performances of note, too - Randy Hughson's whimpering Bardolph as he is about to be hanged by his old friend is particularly gut-wrenching (as is his feat of hanging over the audience far longer than is comfortable for either). Ben Carlson's Fluellen - perhaps the only other rounded character - evokes nobility and a better understanding of the rules of war, and easily provokes the laughter that war needs at times. Tom Rooney as a somewhat menacing Pistol does likewise, as does Gareth Potter as an overly pompous Dauphin with a creepy laugh, and Sophia Walker plays the unnamed Boy as a child in the midst of war with all  dread and fear a child should have in that situation.  Juan Chioran lends a quiet dignity and air of respect to Mountjoy the French messenger, Michael Blake gives the audience a memorable High Constable, and Bethany Jilliard and Deborah Hay are a true duet of relief as the Princess and her broken-English speaking lady-in-waiting. Finally, Snow White's evil queen has nothing on Claire Lautier as the Queen of France with her venomous warning shots to the young King.

All in all Henry V is an impressive production, but one that could have been great - had the actors been given some breathing room.

And for those who are confused by the massive Canadian flag unfurled at the end - it is a nod to our French and English heritage, and just as manipulative to a patriotic crowd as any of Henry's speeches. Well done, Mr. McAnuff.

Henry V continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until September 29th.

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