Friday, June 29, 2012

Henry V (review)

A pivotal moment in Shakespeare's Henry V is when Henry tells his army to kill their prisoners.

Shakespeare has taken Henry through a long epic of personal change. In Henry IV Part I, Prince Hal is a dissipate, fun-loving, rich man's son, feeling guilty about the bad deeds his father performed to get the crown. Over the three plays Hal changes a lot. As he assumes the responsibility of becoming king his transformation is so great that he initiates a war to obtain French land. But the chillingest thing he does is during the battle of Agincourt when Henry decides to kill the French prisoners - a gross violation of any rules of war or morality.

Many productions of Henry V leave out the killing of the prisoners. Branagh and Olivier both left it out, and you have to assume that they didn't want their regal portrayals of Henry to be tarnished by such brutality. It's a pity. It changes everything to leave it out.

Des McAnuff's current Stratford production of Henry V leaves in the killing of the prisoners but makes no sense of it. The production is enjoyable fluff, but it makes little sense of anything. The biggest problem is the casting of Aaron Krohn as Henry; Krohn may be a decent actor, but he's more a matinee idol than a Shakespearian: he doesn't have the gravitas or the technique for Henry.

The second biggest problem is what McAnuff has told Krohn to do. It's like Krohn is just creating scenes without any context. After Henry's ruthlessness with the prisoners, McAnuff has Henry become a lighthearted lover who inexplicably falls in love with the French princess - there's no hint that the alliance solidifies his hold on France - that Henry's transformation is now so complete that even love is for him nothing but politics.

Henry V is full of stirring moments and great lines, but this production lets them all slip away. Henry's stirring pep talk to his troops becomes a conversation with a few of his generals. "Once more into the breach... the game's afoot!" is lost in monotone. Henry has no character and the play ultimately has no meaning.

Stratford doesn't fail the way it used to. Even in this remarkably vapid production, there is much that is good and the play overall is enjoyable, with great staging, music, sets - and a huge talented cast.



Anonymous said...

I saw Henry V yesterday, July 10/12, and found this review to be bang on. The audience seemed to reflect this less than momentous production -- it was somewhere around 1/3 capacity and underwhelmed.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see my lukewarm (at best) reaction to this production confirmed! I didn't think it was possible to make a mess of this crowd-pleasing play, but I was proven wrong. No governing concept that I could see--and the multiplication of the "Chorus" part so that everyone in the cast gets a line makes (incidentally) no sense.

Yappa said...

The chorus threw me too. In particular, it was disorienting to see Ben Carlson in the chorus... he's too recognizable to do two small parts, especially when one has an iffy accent. All in all it was as if they were trying to throw away the chorus's lines, like they thought they'd just bore the audience.