Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound: Henry V at Stratford

Aside from his frenetic comedies of the past few years, I have not been a fan of Des McAnuff's directorial work at Stratford. As such, perhaps I was already a little biased when I went to see this season's flagship production of Henry V. But, as predicted, this interpretation held all the hallmarks of Mr McAnuff serving the needs of the lowest common denominator rather than the text.

When I entered the theatre, I noticed how spare the stage was. At the back of the stage was a twenty-foot moat surrounded by a lovingly rendered battlement. It made for a very austere setting, and not a visually captivating one.

Immediately, McAnuff employs one of his favourite conceits, that of modern dress for about thirty seconds before everyone quick changes to period dress. I first saw this used in his Romeo and Juliet a few years ago, and the concept remains superfluous. The cast as an ensemble then recites the Chorus's usually thrilling prologue, distilled by this odd choice which serves only to clutter the wooden O on what we are to imagine Agincourt.

The cast is hampered by deadly pacing, which only bored me rather than make me relish the language. That said, Timothy D. Stickney turns in a great performance as Essex, as does Tom Rooney as Pistol and Deborah Hays as Alice. Ben Carlson is fine as Fluellen, if oddly accented, and Sean Arbuckle as the Dauphin is a rare delight.

The trouble lies with Aaron Krohn, who plays Henry V. Unfortunately, he seems to have great trouble with the role. He does not come off as human, and too often wastes the great lines he has been given.

I attended this performance with my francophone mother, who has nothing good to say about Bethany Jillard's casting as Catherine. It does boggle the mind how he biggest repertory theatre in Canada could not find a single actress to speak proper French for this brief French role. Indeed, the theme of cultural/national unity that McAnuff pins onto the end of the play rings that much more hollow for me. 

The text is done the greatest disservice in this production; he moments of greatest excitement are not grown from the words and action, ultimately a failure on the director's part.

Furthermore, though I never wanted to know what 'poor theatre' looks like on a million-dollar budget, the innovation that grows from necessity and want in smaller theatre is manufactured to a nauseating degree in Henry V. At times, it feels like cutting corners.

All in all I was underwhelmed in excess by this production. It was lukewarm, ersatz, and it ran on a false sense of camaraderie with the audience. I felt thoroughly condescended towards.

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