Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

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.

Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. The Stratford show does not use actual horses.

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.

McAnuff

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.

We preview the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2012 season

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) will be celebrating its 60th season by cutting its Shakespeare offerings down to three plays, plus a version of Macbeth using characters from The Simpsons. Overall, it’s a disappointing 2012 playbill. Still, in order of interest, these are the shows that interest us the most:

1. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (at the Festival Theater)

Much Ado About Nothing figures to be the best Shakespeare of the season. Ben Carlson, one of the finest classical actors we’ve seen anywhere, will play Benedict, and his wife Deborah Hay will appear as Beatrice. Since he’s been at Stratford, Mr. Carlson’s been as good as they get as Hamlet, Brutus, Leontes, Touchstone, and Alceste (in last season’s The Misanthrope). The question is whether Ms. Hay can match him in Shakespeare. At the Shaw Festival she stood out as a comic actress, but she was also terrific three years in a more nuanced role in Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance (see this Emsworth post).

If you haven’t noticed, Shakespeare’s five most popular comedies are in a rotation of sorts at the Stratford Festival; it’s comforting to know that it won’t be long before you can see one of your favorites. We’ve had

The Taming of the Shrew (2003)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2004)
As You Like It (2005)
Twelfth Night (2006)
Much Ado About Nothing (2006)

The Taming of the Shrew (2008)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009)
As You Like It (2010)
Twelfth Night (2011)

It was therefore predictable that Much Ado About Nothing, which is indeed a favorite of ours, would be on the marquee in 2012. It will be directed by former Shaw Festival Artistic Director Christopher Newton, who has said the play will be set in Brazil.

2. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (at the Tom Patterson Theater)

We’ve tried and failed several times to read Cymbeline, but it’s always seemed too hard to follow. So we’re hoping this show will bring to life a Shakespeare play that hasn’t worked for us in print. Stratford productions have done this for us before — we’re thinking especially of Troilus and Cressida (2003) and Two Gentleman of Verona (2010).

We don’t claim to understand Cymbeline‘s plot, which is the complicated story of a young woman who marries against her father’s will. Geraint Wyn Davies will play the title role, and Cara Ricketts will play his daughter Imogen. Despite its uncomfortable seats, the Tom Patterson Theatre is still our favorite place to see Shakespeare.

3. 42nd Street (at the Festival Theater)

We were startled to realize that 42nd Street was not from the golden age of Broadway musicals. We’d seen the ’30s movie and assumed wrongly that it was based on a musical play. In fact, 42nd Street wasn’t staged until 1980; it won the Tony as best musical play in 1981.

The story of 42nd Street is a show about a show, with cliches that were endlessly recycled in old movie musicals; a chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, is canned for messing up, but is rehired to take the place of an injured star. Interestingly, the Stratford Festival has yet to announce who will play Peggy Sawyer. [1-23-12 update: it’s been announced that Jennifer Rider-Shaw, a young singer who was part of the company in Jesus Christ Superstar last year, has been given the part.] But long-time Stratford favorite Cynthia Dale will be returning to play Dorothy Brock, the injured leading lady whom Peggy Sawyer replaces. Gary Griffin, who directed the phenomenal West Side Story at Stratford three years ago, will be in charge.

The show uses one of Emsworth’s all-time top-ten favorite pop songs, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” This tune was not in the 1933 movie, but was instead written by the same songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin for another show, Dames, a year later. Other songs in 42nd Street include “Lullabye of Broadway” (which wasn’t in the 1933 movie either) and “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me.” June 2012 update: “I Only Have Eyes for You” wasn’t used in the show after all! But the show as a whole was dazzling entertainment.

4. Electra (by Sophocles, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

Another shot at classical Greek tragedy! We have shamefully little experience either seeing or reading the ancient Greek poets. Three years ago at Stratford we did see a play by Euripedes, The Trojan Women, which like Electra was written about 400 years before the birth of Christ, but we didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t feel confident enough to blog about it. We still find it mind-boggling to think that these dramas have been preserved for 2500 years.

In a way, Electra is a sequel to The Trojan Women. In the latter play, the Greek king Agamemnon and his men have burned Troy and carried off their women. In Electra, the Greeks are back home after the Trojan wars, but Agamemnon and his new Trojan concubine Cassandra have been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra (as predicted by Cassandra in The Trojan Women). Agamemnon’s daughter Electra is unhappy about the murder of her father, and she and her twin brother Orestes set about to revenge their father by slaying their mother. Good times!

In the plays of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller — that is, in modern theater — the characters have more or less realistic conversations with one another. There was none of that in The Trojan Women, which consisted mostly of protracted laments by angry women, plus speeches by the gods. There probably won’t be any snappy repartee in Electra either. But it’s a different genre; we’ve gathered that ancient Greek tragedy is as different from modern theater as modern theater is from opera.

5. The Matchmaker (by Thornton Wilder, at the Festival Theatre)

Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams wrote novels too, but nobody reads them. Thornton Wilder is on the short list of writers who have been as successful writing stories and novels as they have writing plays. In fact, we just read and enjoyed Wilder’s late novel The Eighth Day this fall.

Everyone knows and loves Wilder’s Our Town, but The Matchmaker, which we enjoyed about ten years ago at the Shaw Festival, is every bit as entertaining, and funnier. This is the play on which the musical Hello, Dolly! was based. The wonderful Seana McKenna will play the matchmaker, Dolly Levi.

6. Henry V (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre)

Emsworth ungraciously announced a year ago that he did not intend to buy any more tickets for Shakespeare plays directed by Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff. Faithful to that vow, we boycotted the McAnuff-directed Twelfth Night last summer, even though it’s one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (see this list), and even though it was apparently popular with Stratford audiences. We were told by reliable friends that we did well to skip it. We don’t doubt that Mr. McAnuff sincerely loves Shakespeare, but he clearly doesn’t have faith that a Shakespeare play can stand on its own without gimmicks like the sixties-style rock songs that (report has it) repeatedly interrupted the story of Twelfth Night last summer.

But what could Mr. McAnuff possibly do to ruin Henry V? It’s a play about a historical English king, set unambiguously in a definite time and place in history. So surely he won’t re-imagine it as a fascist fable (as he did with As You Like It a couple of years ago) or set it in Africa (as he did with the Scottish play, Macbeth, a year before that). Fortunately, our vows are not as inviolable as Lear’s, which he “durst never” break (King Lear, Act I, Scene 1). We’ve never seen Henry V on stage, and we badly want to.

It’s disappointing that Ben Carlson wasn’t cast as Henry V. Mr. Carlson is of suitable age for the role now, but he won’t be the next time the Stratford Festival mounts Henry V, in another ten years or so. The part has been given instead to Aaron Krohn; Mr. Carlson will be relegated to the minor role of of the Welshman, Fluellen. Lucy Peacock will adorn the role of the Hostess; we’ll be glad to see Tom Rooney as Pistol.

7. A Word or Two (readings/recitations by Christopher Plummer, at the Avon Theater)

A year ago we expressed the hope that Christopher Plummer would return to Stratford in 2012 to play the Duke in Measure for Measure. Mr. Plummer is indeed coming back to Stratford, but to give a solo program of readings and recitations. It’ll run for only a month, from late July to late August.

No doubt these readings will be memorable. But we are seriously put off by the fact that tickets for this one-man show will be about 30 percent more expensive than tickets for, say, Henry V, which will have castles full of courtiers and battlefields full of armies.

8. The Pirates of Penzance (operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan, at the Avon Theatre)

Wonderful tunes, clever lyrics. The Pirates of Penzance is the farcical story of a young man whose nurse accidentally apprentices him to a band of pirates, to whom he is bound until his 21st birthday. But Frederic was born on February 29, so unfortunately he won’t hit 21 for a while. It’s all very entertaining, but we’ve come to think of Gilbert & Sullivan as community theater material and aren’t likely to add this show to our bundle of tickets.

9. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (musical play based on Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, at the Avon Theatre)

Surely they jest.

10. MacHomer at the Studio Theatre)

Homer Simpson and family do Macbeth. Here’s more evidence that the management at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival doesn’t have faith in its core product. This show will play only during May, while the schools are still in session and English teachers are still bringing their students to Stratford. After all, why should the kids have to suffer through Much Ado About Nothing? Give ’em something they’ll understand! And something that’ll make ’em laugh!

Other shows: Hirsch (by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, in the Studio Theatre); The Best Brothers (by Daniel MacIvor, in the Studio Theatre); Wanderlust (by Morris Panych, in the Tom Patterson Theatre)

The play called Hirsch is about John Hirsch, who was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival for five years about 30 years ago. We’re not uninterested in the history of the Stratford Festival (see this post), but this seems a stretch.

The Best Brothers is a world premiere by a Canadian playwright, described as the story of a couple of brothers coming to grips with the death of their mother.

Wanderlust is a new musical play written by the Canadian playwright and director Morris Panych. It’s advertised as based on the poems of Canadian poet Robert W. Service. Like Jack London, Service wrote a good deal about the gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon in the early 20th century, and that’s what this story is about. Tom Rooney will take the role of the poet.