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To Bring Forth so Great an Object

Review Author: Julian Gunn [mail]
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Production: Henry V (2014, Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, Canada)
Review date: 11 August, 2014

The grounds of Camosun College are an inspired setting for the Victoria Shakespeare Festival’s production of Henry V. The chorus’ famous plea to the audience – set our imaginations to work! – is given unusual support by the expanse of high sun-bleached grass surrounding the stage. It is easy to imagine that we are on the fields of Agincourt. This is an outdoor production that revels in its opportunity for spaciousness.

In fact, during the Festival’s productions we are inside the action. We are ranged on folding chairs facing a simple stage. Actors enter and exit by running down corridors marked out through the audience. The production makes excellent use of an enormous space, with cast streaming in and out across swathes of lawn from several different directions. A small knoll behind the stage allows the players to rush up over the rise or vanish behind it. This is used to particularly good effect in the scenes of war. The staging is otherwise very simple: a bare stage, iconic costume pieces, and two carts to hold extra costumes and props — one red, one blue, to signify the conflict between England and France.

This is a high-energy, unified cast. It’s a pleasure to watch them work together. Standouts among the strong ensemble are Alex Judd as the Duke of Exeter and Susie Mullen playing trouser parts with effortless bravado. Henry himself, as played by Julian Cervello, is charismatic and active. This is a king who still bears traces of his rollicking youth – best exemplified by Henry’s elaborate prank in Act IV. In the more serious scenes, it would have been satisfying to see a more grounded Henry, one who is able to modulate between the playful, high-spirited young man and the powerful military leader. For example, during Henry’s chilling threat of mass violence and violation at Harfleur, his tone should probably not be quite so cheerful – this is Henry showing his steel. Alexa MacDougall as Katharine and Adrienne Smook as Alice provide a lively comedic contrast – as always, I wish for more of these characters, but Shakespeare has not provided it. The negotiation between Henry and Katharine is given enough time to allow some emotional conviction to develop — it is an understated but satisfying directorial choice.

Casting limitations have led to the cutting of minor characters and some doubling. There are, for example, two conspirators instead of three. Adrienne Smook handles her shifts between Alice, Katharine’s attendant, and the Welsh Captain Fluellen fluidly, imparting to each a distinct embodiment. There are also cuts to some speeches, to varying effect. Removing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s long (and to a modern audience quite confusing) Act I speech about Salic law streamlines the action. Yet the text works hard in that first act to provide external supports for Henry’s decision, and trimming back the arguments for the war makes his choice seem more arbitrary.

The direction chooses to foreground something of the repetitiveness, even bureaucracy, of war. Rather than inserting much business – swordplay and comic or violent pantomime – during the shifts of location, the production shows us soldiers rushing to, or trudging from, conflict. What we witness on stage is the interstitial action: the conversation, negotiation, complaining and anxiety that make up much of conflict.

If I were to add something to the solid foundation that this production provides, I would suggest a honing of focus. Because there are so many similar scenes, with the action cutting back and forth between the English and the French, each scene can be strengthened by communicating a clear and specific sense of its purpose. When this focus flagged, some opportunities for dramatic irony were blurred. The speech of the Boy prefigures the French attack on the baggage train; the comic exchange between the lower-class soldiers and their French captive increases our dismay when we hear that Henry has ordered the execution of the prisoners as retribution. These emotional elements give the audience something to hang on to even if they become momentarily unmoored in the Elizabethan dialogue, or a passing motorcycle happens to drown out a few words.

This is an invigorating summer entertainment, a spectacle that manages to be simple at the same time. The aim is to present a stripped-down, straightforward Shakespeare, enjoyed on its own terms, and this is largely successful. Go, and deck their kings with your thoughts.

Permanent link to full entry 10:08:43 am. Categories: Stage Performances  

Henry V (Stratford Festival of Canada)

Review Author: Sarah Neville [mail]
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Production: Henry V (2012, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 13 October, 2012

Billeted as a young king’s vague attempt “to unite in common cause a kingdom torn apart by civil strife”, McAnuff’s production is short on the motivation that should arise from being the fourth play in a series. Aaron Krohn’s Henry is appropriately young, handsome, and martial but nonetheless slightly wooden, and it pushed credulity to believe him capable of the ribaldry and wildness that his Prince Hal id demands. This Henry, a Henry who embraces Bardolph in genuine remorse as he condemns his former comrade to hanging, a Henry that is so eager to hear how he is perceived that he disguises himself to walk amongst his soldiers, this Henry seems incapable of uttering “I know thee not, old man” with sufficient disgust to break Sir John’s engorgéd heart. A compelling lover, a brusque and hearty commander, Krohn’s Henry was indeed quite good — “I believed in him”, said our septuagenarian housemate at breakfast — but he was good only for this particular play in isolation; while one could easily see how such a youth could be persuaded to invade France by a clergy eager to distract him from more opportunistic grasping at home, it is harder to believe that this particular young man, one who spent most of his youth in taverns, was sired by the wily and conniving Bolingbroke. Such a point may be unfair to push too far, however; despite his pedigree, this is only Krohn’s second Stratford season, and it is clear that he will grow into lead status. His Henry woos Kate with the adorable self-abasement that redeems the play’s general lack of a subplot, and his adoption of royal authority is assured and confident.

But the real star of McAnuff’s production is its set. Designer Robert Brill constructed an 18×18′ square, a relatively small playing space within the Festival Theatre, broadened by an elevated working wooden drawbridge that enabled actors to enter and exit both beneath and above. Raised, the drawbridge created an alcove to illustrate the death of Falstaff; lowered, it served as a broad entrance for military excursions with three armed men able to walk abreast. Nine equidistant traps within the main playing space memorably served as prisons for the doomed French prisoners, as well as live fire pits during Henry’s disguised sortie before the battle of Agincourt, with an extended cast of extras huddled around each for warmth. Kate (Bethany Jillard) enters her “toilette” from beneath in a bathtub raised through the traps, offering a sweet, apt interpretation of a language lesson centered around the body. The drawbridge offered a venue for the show’s most spectacular act of creation, a gigantic galleon of war comprised of nothing but extras holding sails, dipping and flapping in a paired, extended dance signifying English military might. With the English clearly defined by their red cross of St. George and the French by their blue fleur-de-lis, even those audiences unfamiliar with the plot could keep the warring sides distinct despite the whirl and smoke of battle. Would that I’d had an “Intro to Shakespeare” class to bring along with me to see this!

Permanent link to full entry 08:55:07 am. Categories: Stage Performances  


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