A couple of years ago, after several unsatisfactory experiences in a row, Emsworth vowed to attend no more Shakespeare productions directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff. But when Henry V was announced for the 2012 season, an exception seemed to be called for. How much of a muddle could McAnuff make of it? The setting of Henry V is fixed firmly in England and France in 1415; what were the chances Mr. McAnuff would set it in a fascist country in 1930? And if McAnuff ran amok with glitter and spectacle, as was inevitable, would it ruin a play like Henry V? I didn’t see how it could, and went ahead to order an excellent pair of third-row tickets.
But poor acting will sink any play. True, Mr. McAnuff didn’t mess with the setting of the play. And visually it’s a success, from the elaborate period costumes to pageantry of the chorus parts to the cannon to the enormous British flag. The brawl in the tavern between the hot-tempered Pistol and Nim went off nicely, and the battle scenes were lively and cleverly choreographed. But none of this made up for the fact that King Henry is poorly cast and that long parts of the play are simply tedious.
One can say this of Aaron Krohn: with his compact figure, square jaw, and steely eyes, he looks very much the part of the 28-year-old king. He can be heard pretty well, and he has all his lines memorized.
But in all other respects his performance falls well short. The part of Henry V calls for an enormous range of expression, from the early moment when the king shows his steel by showing no mercy to traitors, to his ironic and meditative dialogues with his soldiers on the eve of battle, to the famous “band of brothers” speech, to his shocking order that the French prisoners be killed, to the wooing of the Princess Catherine. Mr. Krohn is a man of one voice — it matches his steely eyes — and he uses it on every occasion.
A good actor accompanies his lines with appropriate gestures; the Stratford Festival’s best actors convey as much with looks and body language as with words. But Mr. Krohn looks into the distance, and his arms fall limply at his side.
How much a director can be blamed for poor acting from a play’s lead actor, I cannot say, but nevertheless all of the worst acting performances we have seen at Stratford have been in plays directed by Mr. McAnuff. Mr. Krohn’s expressionless speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt would not have inspired a pack of wolves to attack a stray lamb.
Did Mr. McAnuff, who seems to prefer doing things different in Shakespeare merely for the sake of being unconventional, tell his lead actor not to deliver a rousing speech, simply because that’s what other actors usually do? In Act V, Scene 2, the Duke of Burgundy, a minor character, is given some of the best poetry in Henry V, lines that illuminate the playwright’s mature reflections on war and peace. Burgundy’s speech uses horticulture as an extended metaphor for a French nation in which peace and the blessings of peace have not been allowed to thrive:
And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,–as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,–
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural.
Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that Xuan Fraser, as Burgundy, showed no evidence of understanding his lines? As Burgundy droned on, the Stratford audience zoned out. Did Mr. McAnuff fail to notice that the wooing scene between King Henry and Princess Catherine (Bethany Jillard), toward the end of the play, was dying a slow death, and that Mr. Krohn and Ms. Jillard seemed to be caught in a dialogue loop from which they could not escape?
It’s not all bad. The tavern scenes, with Bardolph (Randy Hughson), Pistol (Tom Rooney), Nim, (Christopher Prentice), and the Hostess (Lucy Peacock) are lively and well-acted; Mr. Rooney is a treasure. The scene in which Bardolph has been arrested for stealing a chalice from a chapel is rendered with feeling and suspense: will they really hang the reprobate? I especially enjoyed Juan Chioran as Montjoy, the French king’s herald, and Ben Carlson as Fluellen, the Welsh captain in King Henry’s army.
And McAnuff, no doubt correctly guessing that a good part of the play’s audience would not understand French, gave interest to the episode in the palace between Princess Catherine and her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Deborah Hay) by having the dialogue (all in French, as the playwright wrote it) take place during Catherine’s bath. Any doubt as to whether the actress was actually bathing in the altogether was removed when the Princess stood, her back and backside to the audience, to be dried off.