Tom Rooney as Ensign Pistol and Aaron Krohn as King Henry V in Henry V. Photography by David Hou.
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Set design by Robert Brill
Written by Geoff Dale
You know there’s a bit of a problem when much of the praise – deservedly so here – is heaped upon one of the play’s secondary characters instead of the lead. But that’s exactly what happens in director Des McAnuff’s impressively noisy but rather tepid vision of Henry V.
Whenever Tom Rooney is centre stage, literally wringing every possible laugh and grimace out of the wonderfully sinister but comic figure of Ensign Pistol – an old drinking crony of a dying Falstaff – he literally steals the show from the pivotal characters.
It’s most noticeable when, not realizing he is talking with and down to King Henry V (Aaron Krohn), he unknowingly spars with and denigrates the disguised monarch. Krohn for some odd reason just seems to be blandly reading his lines in response – reducing Shakespeare’s powerful battlefield leader to an almost disengaged bystander.
On the plus side, there are no real deviations from the essential plot nor is the action magically transported to 19th Century Morocco. The Archbishop of Canterbury (James Blendick) sets the action in motion with his claim to the king that certain French lands in reality belong to England. Financial support is then offered to wage a war against King Charles V1 (Richard Binsley).
In one of the first act’s few genuinely moving scenes, three leaders of a rebellion are executed by Henry, who then moves on to France, ultimately to do battle on the fields of Agincourt with a superior French army that outnumbers the English, seemingly by the thousands.
Set designer Robert Brill offers up solid sets that make this an often eye-catching production while fight director Steve Rankin recreates moments of battle in fine fashion, ensuring act two moves at a much quicker pace than the often sluggish first 90 minutes.
And there are plenty of cannon blasts and airborne arrows along with the odd flash of lightning and occasional round of thunder to make the three-hour play an awesome demonstration of sound and fury that befits a battleground where thousands of men are dying in rapid succession.
Sadly those special effects at times threaten to overwhelm some the activity of the actors. Fortunately some like Rooney, Juan Chioran as the French ambassador Montjoy, Lucy Peacock in the minor but beautifully acted-role of Pistol’s wife Hostess and Tyrone Savage as the Duke of Gloucester ultimately win out.
But the same cannot be said for Krohn who seems to lack the passion and vigour one might expect from a man leading his army onto the battlefields against overwhelming odds. The emotion – whether sadness, joy or anger – never really materializes to a satisfactory level.
Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating works – a drama, with touches of sly humour that delves into the very heart of warfare. The playwright presents the conflicting philosophies – right or wrong – then lays out the scenes of bloody carnage but leaves the decision making to the audience.
For some reason, this particular production doesn’t strike enough gut-wrenching humanistic notes, just trotting out scenes of pyrotechnic wizardry, piling up the dead bodies and then moving on in an almost matter-of-fact manner.
It’s neither a triumph nor failure for the departing McAnuff. Entertaining in parts with a few standouts in the company but ultimately, at three hours, Henry V is a tad tedious and a little detached.
For what it’s worth, the opening sequence in Henry V bears similarities to the beginning of Norman Jewison’s 1973 cinematic treatment of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
Henry V starts with a troupe of actors dressed in contemporary costumes moving about the set, explaining what is about to unfold, then retreat and return in more recognizable Shakespearean clothing.
In Jewison’s treatment of the Broadway classic, a bus load of actors hop off their vehicle in the desert, disrobe and then reappear in Biblical robes and sandals to retell the story of Christ’s last six days on earth.
Both have their moments but just not enough of them.
For McAnuff and company, Henry V fights for **1/2 stars out of four.
This review can also be found online at: the beat magazine
Runs until September 29
Approximate running time: 3 hours
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online www.stratfordfestival.ca