Henry V by William Shakespeare
Directed by Meg Roe
Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival,
Studio Stage, Vanier Park.
to September 24th, 2010
Vancouver, BC: Following her 2008 directing debut at Bard on the Beach with a lively production of The Tempest, Meg Roe has again created a visually exciting and engrossing work in this year's production of Henry V. And this year, instead of having Alessandro Juliani produce a complete soundscape to underscore the production as in The Tempest, she places him front and centre as Henry V. A multi-talented artist - he performs both tasks, sound design (for The Tempest) and acting in the lead role (of two plays at the same time!), with equal aplomb. Juliani is quite entrancing to watch onstage, and he played a Hal and a Henry worthy of the crown he ultimately attains.
There are really not a lot of dramatic plot twists or intrigues in Henry V. After the prologue wherein Chorus calls for "a muse of fire" and for us, the audience, to waken our imaginations, the action opens with Henry deciding whether to invade France to take over the French throne. Encouraged by the exceedingly wordy Archbishop of Canterbury (played with great comedic timing by Kevin McNulty) and the Bishop of Ely (Bernard Cuffling), and annoyed by an insulting gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin (Charlie Gallant), Henry confirms his intent to go to France. Before his departure for France, learning of a conspiracy to kill him, Henry arrests the conspirators the Earl of Cambridge (Andrew McNee), Lord Scrope (Charlie Gallant) and Sir Thomas Grey (Kevin James) and orders their execution.
Back at the house of Mistress Quickly (Colleen Wheeler), his former Eastcheap friends, Bardolph (Bernard Cuffling), Nym (David Marr) and Pistol (Kevin K. James) together with the Boy (Joseph Gustafson), are getting ready to go to France. They hear about the death of Falstaff, from his "fractured" heart. There is something about putting a boy among men that made the high school aged Gustafson seem younger than his years, yet he managed to hold his own in a highly experienced company of actors. His biography in the program says he is also fluent in French which elevated his scene with Pistol and the captured French soldier from funny to outright hilarity.
Meanwhile in France, the King, hearing of Henry's plans to invade, offers his daughter Katharine in marriage to Henry. Henry persists in fighting and wins the battle of Harfleur. The French start taking things seriously and raise a huge army and, in another hilariously performed scene, Katharine (Amber Lewis) gets her gentlewoman Alice (Kayla Deorksen) to help her learn English. (I love that scene, and the two women managed to work every mispronunciation to the fullest.)
As the English army is moving through the French countryside towards Agincourt, Henry has warned his troops about looting. When his old friend Bardolph is caught in the act, Henry has no option but to order his execution. Despite being vastly outnumbered, Henry's inspiring speech gets his army going and they win the battle of Agincourt. Henry courts Katharine, and their marriage unites the two kingdoms.
My favorite scenes have always been the delightfully charming inter-play between Henry and Katharine, the Princess of France whom he is courting. But of course Henry V has some of the most glorious and beautiful speeches in all of the history plays, or in the whole Shakespearean canon in general, for that matter. So the role of Henry V really calls for a charismatic actor who can convincingly switch on a dime from fearless and ruthless leader to romantic lover (a task in which Juliani unquestionably succeeds). It was a treat to watch Juliani on successive nights at Bard on the Beach as he demonstrably grows from Prince Hal in Falstaff, the carefree youth, to Henry - warrior-king and leader of men.
The feature of this production that cannot go without mention is the fabulous staging choices that Roe made regarding the battle scenes. Rather than weapons, she employed a technique of emblematic movement and soundscape to both set the scene and to show us the world-weariness that comes of long days and weeks at war. With little more than a prop or two and the human body, Roe and sound designer Owen Belton (and choreographer Rob Kitsos and Fight Director Nick Harrison) depicted everything from the infantry fighting with bows and arrows, to men on horse entering the fray, to a successful breach of the French battlements. The latter ended in a stunning image of a tired but proud and introspective Henry V perched high above his men on two ladders in spotlight. Every so often and image from a show sticks with me and I know it will be one that is remembered long after the production. This moment is one of those images, for me.
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