For his last regular self-assignment of a Shakespeare play while still artistic director, Des McAnuff demonstrated that his strength is not with the Bard’s canon and that when infusing classical theatre with Broadway bombast the result alienates many devotees of both genres.
With Robert Brill’s spectacular execution of drawbridge-centred, wood-rich set, Michael Walton’s pyrotechnic-when-required lighting and Paul Tazewell’s truly magnificent costuming completely at one with their director’s love of all-out spectacle, the eye has few complaints, methinks.
Yet right from the first line the disappointment begins as McAnuff fiddles while France burns. The key role of Chorus—Shakespeare’s sage narrator who takes the audience into his confidence, imparting vital elements of back-story before the major scenes unfold—is not given by one voice (as is most often the case) or ensemble of performers reciting the text in unison à la Greek tragedies, but chopped up piecemeal so that characters we are about to meet or already know knit together the lines in what can only be an uneven quilt. First timers particularly will be confused while veterans can only ask: why?
The pivotal role of King Henry V as played by Aaron Krohn never comes into its own until the baby-faced actor shamelessly woos Catherine (Bethany Jillard—titillating the patrons with a bathtub scene—was a hoot with her fractured French). Prior to that, Krohn can’t find the steely reserve or overt raw leadership that would inspire anyone but the most bloodthirsty “once more unto the breach.” Worse still, Henry (speaking to his crown) is given the last Chorus speech in its entirety, diminishing the intended effect with every vowel and consonant. What could possibly spoil the end of this troubled play more than that? Why, cue up the jingoism! Not since the finale of the Palm Springs Follies (cross-reference below) have I witnessed such a grating gimmick. Here, after larger-than-life flags of England and France flew high above or covered the thrust stage—making it crystal clear whose court we were in—the unfurling of Canada’s colours only managed to further reduce what little artistic integrity remained in the Festival Theatre. Oh the ghosts will be chattering tonight!
In the redeeming qualities department, the male chorus led by lute-toting Captain Fluellen (Ben Carlson was his customary wry, witty self with his affected Welsh accent only veering slightly towards India/Pakistan in the late innings) was a stunning example of the power of natural, in-tune voices to bring real emotion onto the filling fields before and after bloody death. Michael Roth’s score was an asset throughout, however the stereo effects of the onstage brass couldn’t solve the vagaries of acoustical echo. Unlike the wayward French horns of the London Symphony Orchestra for William Walton’s music in Laurence Olivier’s cinematic triumph (see below), Kate Stone was secure and effective on or off the stage.
For further comic relief, Tom Rooney’s Ensign Pistol was a marvel of false bravura, greed and anguish if at times over-the-top with the machine gun sallies of alliterative consonants; Randy Hughson’s Lieutenant Bardolph was the ideal go-between for his arguing colleagues, yet by the time he was—literally—hung out to dry (replete with a scarecrow encore to rush the patrons out of sudden justice and into the safety of intermission) the prospect of the end of his raspy delivery seemed well worth the sentence. The other intermediary between the warring factions—the French ambassador—was superbly delivered by Juan Chioran. The problem, nonetheless, was his king (Richard Binsley) proved to be far too thoughtfully regal to ever lose his throne while King Harry could never convey the suddenly reformed (following the death of Henry IV) party animal turned fair-but-cruel monarch. Also in France, the son of King Charles VI, Louis the Dauphin, was soiled from the beginning with the instruction from the artistic trust to giggle like Tom Hulce’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (cross-reference below), adding a few more false notes rooted firmly in the key of popular entertainment major. To his credit and our disdain, Gareth Potter did everything asked of him.
Finally, when the BIG battle comes, the blood and gore expected (given the three beheadings and gallows “incident”) seemed surprisingly tame for one of the most incredible Against All Odds (romantically “outnumbered 5 to 1”—many historians disagree) victories in history. Still, the notion from King Henry—given the improbable likelihood of victory—that the “less left [of us] the more glory for each” demonstrates once again Shakespeare’s complete understanding as to why bullies and braggarts will use any excuse to put other men’s lives at risk; whether the cause is just or not (hello there Bush clan) matters not. JWR
Laurence Olivier, 1944
The famed actor/director’s imagination is put to excellent use in this leisurely telling of the two powers (England and France) warring with each and both having God on their side.
Chorus is given an impressively dynamic reading by Leslie Banks after the camera (Robert Krasker—with an assist from Jack Hildyard—masterfully completes his director’s vision in every frame) marvellously (and literally) sets the stage for a period performance in the Globe Theatre (the highly detailed models and painted backdrops are hugely believable even as the flags flap in the breeze while the pristine trees are “shaken, not stirred”).
Once the fleet sets sail across the English Channel, the “use-your-imagination” set expands into the countryside with its castles and fields of death. The shot-sequence-du-jour comes during King Harry’s (Olivier at his inspirational best with the troops, superbly balanced with understated inner angst as the battle draws near) “masked” reflection just as dawn begins to break. The famed visage soon shares the screen with fatally innocent Boy (rendered with an eerily nuanced tone far ahead of his years by George Cole), the early glow of the sun under which thousands will “see the beginning but not the end of the day” and a hotly burning campfire that speaks to the deadly heat of battle to come.
For comic relief, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) and his beer-loving Bishop (Robert Helpmann) prove to be blessed connivers and hilariously inept history tellers as their other “Lord” learns how he is entitled to all of France.
The only disappointment comes in the late inning courtship of Cousin Catherine (Renée Asherson is best during the English lesson given by her lady-in-waiting) with the victorious King Henry. Few sparks fly, subtle passion is MIA—alas deep-seated romance of the usual kind was not in cards for Olivier unless the more expected man-playing-woman tradition in those days had been employed here as well. JWR