Through October 28
HENRY V Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre/Shaw Festival
By Augustine Warner
Maybe because the Stratford Festival is such a Shakespeare production factory, it took the Shaw Festival to turn its first Shakespeare production into a home run, or for the Canadian context, a hat trick.
Shaw is again dipping into World War I and setting its production initially in a bunker on the Western Front and then in a military hospital, for “Henry V.”
Just down the road in the Royal George Theatre, a theater built for World War I soldiers in training, the Shaw is staging a musical about that war, “Oh What a Lovely War,” using some of the same music.
The festival has been in that period before, a wonderful production of R.C. Sheriff’s “Journey’s End,” also in a Western Front bunker.
Niagara-on-the-Lake was central to the Canadian effort to send tens of thousands of soldiers overseas to fight on the Western Front, with 67-thousand killed.
If you look at the history of that community going back well before the War of 1812, that community was a military outpost, with Fort Niagara and the U.S. visible across the Niagara River.
Shifting Shakespeare to a different time or a different place isn’t unusual, often routine.
Way too often, in my experience, the changes haven’t been well thought through.
Here, the changes are well thought through and effective, offering lessons to a generation of directors who tinker with Shakespeare while not thinking through why they are doing it.
One of the central characters in this production is a Canadian serving in a British military unit and nurses in the second act are wearing Canada badges on their uniforms.
The script has been trimmed, not by a lot, although some of the cuts are noticeable, if you know the script.
Shaw Artistic Director Tim Carroll and Kevin Bennett are the directors, with Carroll given credit for the shape of the show.
Or course, the play is set in the same French area of Picardy which housed miles of the trenches of the Western Front and probably thousands of bunkers similar to the underground housing used in the first act.
These are front line soldiers, with the sound and vibration of artillery flying overhead and possibly a tunnel being dug by the Germans below them.
They end the first act armed and dressed for battle and climbing the stairs out of the bunker and into combat.
The second act is set in the military hospital where most of the unit is being treated for battle wounds by a group of crisply dressed nurses.
This small unit is practicing a production of “Henry V,” surrounded by all the detritus of warfare, from soldiers cleaning their Lee-Enfields to a box of grenades filling the role of the tennis balls the Dauphin sends to the king, as an item of ridicule.
King Henry V is one of the great kings of England, a young ruler whose father usurped the throne and dealt with the dissolute crown prince and his roistering friends like Falstaff, Pistol, Nym and Bardolph.
Suddenly, he’s king and pushes Falstaff away.
This is the Shakespeare version.
It’s something perhaps told in the playwright’s day which hasn’t come down to us.
What has is the core of “Henry V,” a war, and the heart of that core is one of the legendary battles, Agincourt, central to the Hundred Years War of the English trying to take control of all of France away from a weak king and royal court.
In this battle, a few thousand English soldiers equipped with the wonder weapon of the day, the English longbow, defeated a massive French army and slaughtered the cream of the French military nobility, a list enumerated by the king near the end of the play.
Many of those nobles are principal characters earlier in the play, a very large cast of characters.
Carroll and Bennett have chosen to shift the roles around all during the show, as the soldiers perform and practice in the bunker, even as the nurses come on the scene in the second act and take on some roles.
The one exception is Gray Powell as Henry V, a wonderful performance.
It’s a great role, especially because of the…We Few, We Happy Few…speech to his soldiers, hours before the battle.
The cast includes some of the Shaw’s best, Ric Reid, Graeme Somerville, Patrick Galligan, Claire Jullien and Yanna McIntosh.
These are complicated roles because the Studio Theatre has a relatively small stage, as did the Court House Theatre, which this replaces.
The stage is set up as if the size of the bunker, with beds, trunks, stores of military equipment filling every inch as the performers work on the script and worry about the next hours, a wonderful set from Camellia Koo.
“Henry V” is a very controversial play because it’s so often seen as a paean to war and militarism and it is and it isn’t.
This production makes its point of view clear because of the military hospital and the bandages and crutches of the soldiers as they recover.
In a Shaw season which is, so far, only so-so, “Henry V” is a must see.
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