Review: HENRY V (at the Shaw (!!!!) Festival

by Lynn on August 10, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll

Designed by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Cast: Damien Atkins

Kristopher Bowman

Julia Course

Patrick Galligan

Cameron Grant

Claire Jullien

Yanna McIntosh

Natasha Mumba

Ric Reid

Graeme Somerville

A lame attempt to use a production of Henry V as a means of commemorate the Centenary of WWI. No one is served in this misguided production–not the play, not the committed actors and certainly not Canadians.

The Story. The concept of this comes from Tim Carroll, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director and co-director of the production with Kevin Bennett. The idea is to have a group of soldiers in 1918 fighting in WWI prepare a memorized reading of Shakespeare’s Henry V for some kind of presentation. The soldiers are apparently Canadian.

Henry V is about the young King Henry V and how he negotiates and deals with the French. He believes that he is the rightful heir to France (because of ancestry etc.) The French disrespect his inexperience and taunt him. He buoys his men in spite of great odds against them and leads them into battle at Agincourt, where they miraculously defeat 10,000 French while losing only 29 English soldiers.

The Production. The audience is on all sides of the small playing area. For the first Act, designer Camellia Koo has created a dugout where the soldiers lean up against their gear, clean their weapons, strum a ukulele singing “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, prepare for battle and recite Shakespeare’s Henry V for some event that will happen in a week according to one of the soldiers. They wear brown uniforms with a subtle brown maple leaf sewn into their collar. The only other indication that they are Canadian is when one of the soldiers calls out “Canada” to differentiate them from other troops.

Graeme Somerville begins by reciting the Chorus’ opening soliloquy: “O for a muse of fire…..” The words are clear, crisply said and without an indication of where the Chorus is when saying the speech (“this O…”) or any variation really in ‘enlivening’ the speech. Gray Powell plays a soldier who in turn says the part of Henry V (I can’t really say he ‘plays’ the part of Henry because he’s not directed to). Again he handles the words very well, making them sound like conversation, but again without the verve and spirit needed to illuminate the speeches, especially “Once more unto the breach, dear friends….” Ok it’s clear that professional actors are cast to play the soldiers but the soldiers are in turn amateurs when it comes to ‘presenting’ Henry V. Hmmmmm “interesting.” It’s obvious they are directed that way. Then what’s the point of doing it at all?

 In Henry V the French indicate their contempt for Henry by sending him a box of tennis balls. The soldiers indicate this when one soldier tosses something from a box to Henry to catch. It’s a grenade. That’s a clever bit of business from Kevin Bennett (I assume he is the lead director since he is mentioned first of the two and he wrote the programme note.) but the scene is badly staged because a whole section of the theatre doesn’t see what the “Henry” is catching. Bennett doesn’t have him subtly turn so that all sides of the theatre can see. Act I ends with the men going off to battle.

Act II takes place in a hospital where all the men are wheeled on in beds after they have suffered various wounds. It is here at the top of Act II that comments from the audience on their memories of war are read by a ‘soldier.’ (The audience is asked to fill in blank cards in the lobby during intermission expressing their thoughts.)

The soldier who was the Chorus in Act I is now blind—a bandage is wrapped around his head and over both eyes. Another has been gassed and has a terrible cough; one is unconscious for most of the act; others are on crutches. The nurses who tend them have learned Henry V perhaps to help in the soldiers’ healing.

There are wonderful tender moments in Act II that indicate the camaraderie of the men. The blind soldier is naturally depressed and doesn’t want to eat. Another soldier limps to his bed and feeds him soup and a ‘grout’ (a cookie). A nurse (Yanna McIntosh) tenderly washes and dries the chest of the soldier who is unconscious. When she is finished she looks at another nurse and subtly shakes her head. I was fortunate to be facing in that direction and saw the moment indicating the situation is hopeless. I don’t think others behind her did. The blind soldier does rouse himself from his depression when a glove is needed for a scene. He says he has one, leans over to his right and opens a drawer in his side table and pulls out his gloves. My question is: how does he know his gloves are there if he’s blind? A director’s glitch? Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for another character (sighted)  to have that moment.

When the soldiers and nurses finish ‘reciting’ the play (interestingly, the nurses are better ‘actors’ than the soldiers with Natasha Mumba playing a lively, forthright Katherine). the soldiers are left to dwell on their wounds and futures. Nothing in completing Henry V can take them out of that depression. The play then becomes almost an afterthought. If the directors wanted to do a play about the horrors of war one wonders why they didn’t do Journey’s End that certainly has more relevance.

Comment. What is one to make of this–Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival? I guess it’s part of the new mandate of Tim Carroll: “the Shaw Festival creates unforgettable theatrical encounters in any way we want” A bit arrogant that, but I digress.

There is no debate the soldiers have about war or why they are there as a result of ‘reading’ and preparing Henry V except when a soldier refuses to say a certain part. He’s told that the part is vital because his character explains why Henry wants to invade France. That is the extent of any discourse on the play or war. So why they are doing this play is a mystery never shared with the audience. And it’s never explained for whom they are doing the play ‘in a week.” Hmmm?

We are never told what battle they are preparing for. There is just the perfunctory note that they are Canadians without any context to the war. What a huge missed opportunity. By placing the soldiers in France in 1918 they missed using the reference of the Battle of the Somme (1916) where Canadians were slaughtered; Passchendaele (1917) where Canadians were slaughtered and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917). This is the battle that most mirrors the battle of Agincourt. The Canadians had to take the Ridge. It seemed almost impossible but they did it and that made their reputation. (and lost 10,000 men in the process). And yet both Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll ignored these references. It’s as if these soldiers being Canadian is irrelevant. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The concept of using Shakespeare’s Henry V to commemorate the centenary of WWI doesn’t work. It’s misguided, misdirected and not thought through. And doing Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival isn’t clever. Shaw hated Shakespeare. Just sayin’

“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer. not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my brains against his.” -Bernard Shaw.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: Aug. 8. 2018.

Closes: Oct. 28, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and fifty minutes.

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