—The British traitors ( l-r: Kevin K. James, Andrew McNee and Charlie Gallant) are sentenced to be hanged by King Henry (Alessandro Juliani) in HENRY V at Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival 2010. Photo: David Blue.
Meg Roe spins some more of her directorial magic in Henry V and Alessandro Juliani gives the young king clarity, charisma and charm. But neither their work nor the significant strengths of a solid supporting cast can fully disguise the essentially one-dimensional nature of Shakespeare’s patriotic agitprop at Agincourt. The eloquence of “Once more unto the breach” and the St. Crispin’s Day call to arms (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”), even in Juliani’s clear, strong readings, simply hasn’t enough resonance with a North American audience to give wings to this play.
In Henry V the fun-loving, mildly delinquent Prince Hal of the Henry IV plays gets to show how seriously he takes the responsibilities of rule and what a great leader of men he has become. The French Dauphin (energetic Charlie Gallant) badly underestimates Henry’s ability to command the English army and Bardolph (Bernard Cuffling) gets no reprieve from his and Falstaff’s old tavern buddy for a minor looting offence. But at the same time Juliani lets his natural charm suffuse the character. It’s easy to see why the outnumbered English would gladly follow him into battle. And why the French King’s daughter (Amber Lewis, excellent in both French and broken English) would fall for him, despite their marriage being a political cost of her father’s defeat.
Lewis has another charming scene, practicing English with her maid (Kayla Doerksen). Luc Roderique as a French Lord and young Joseph Gustafson as the page to Falstaff’s pal Pistol (Kevin K. James) also do impressive work in French. Colleen Wheeler displays her usual powerful presence as Chorus, the play’s narrator, and Kevin McNulty, Duncan Fraser, Andrew McNee, David Marr, Todd Thomson and Bob Frazer offer solid support on both the English and French sides in a variety of doubled roles.
Roe shows her directorial skills in devices like the subtle transformation of Thomson from an English to a French soldier by having him simply don or discard a blue sash, costume designer Sheila White’s elegant marker of the French army. Roe also makes good use of Pam Johnson’s handsome set, especially its metallic ramparts with hand-holds for the men to climb, and Adrian Muir’s effective lighting. Her most evident device is the stylized choreographing of battle scenes (fight direction by Nicholas Harrison; choreography by Rob Kitsos). Instead of the usual clashing swords, we get something like line-dancing ballet. This is very effective when the English storm a French city with siege ladders, and later when a chorus of English archers does the dance of the longbows. But a little of this kind of impressionism goes a long way, especially when the actors are not trained dancers.
While there is a lot to admire in this production, the play lacks the Falstaff Factor: the rich texture of the tavern world from I & II Henry IV. Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet in this play are pale shadows of the lusty, sweaty, comic bedlam whence they came. And good King Henry V is no match, theatrically, for his bad-boy younger self.