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.

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Bartholomew Fair at the Stratford Festival

Bartholomew Fair

Cliff Saunders as Leatherhead, the peddler and puppeteer

Bartholomew Fair deserved a fair shot. And we’re not really complaining. We got to see a play by another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and we saw a snapshot of life in London in Shakespeare’s own time. But this play by Ben Jonson at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) takes more effort than it’s worth.

In fairness, director Antoni Cimolino and the big cast did their best to make Bartholomew Fair as lively as possible. The actors scurried here and there, scolded and abused one another, sang and danced, and laughed loudly at their own jokes. There was plenty of groping and off-color humor.

But the play still isn’t that entertaining. It’s all a bit forced, like the names of the characters (like Littlewit, Winwife, Knockem, and Wasp, who was actually costumed like a wasp). At our performance, some of the audience gave up and left after intermission.

The play takes place in London on Bartholomew’s Day. John Littlewit (Matt Steinberg), a Puritan who has written a puppet play, is plotting to go to the wicked fair over the objections of his strict mother-in-law, Dame Purecraft (Brigit Wilson). Various friends and neighbors wander in and out, also intent on the fair; Littlewit encourages them to kiss and fondle his wife Win (Jennifer Paterson).

Bartholomew Fair

Tom McCamus as Justice Overdo

One of his friends is the well-to-do but dim-witted Bartholomew Cokes (Trent Pardy), who is planning to marry Grace Wellborn (Alana Hawley). Littlewit, a scribe, has drafted a marriage license for them. Cokes’s fiance is the ward of the local magistrate, Justice Overdo, who plans to go to the fair to scope out vice and crime.  One of two men competing for the affections of Littlewit’s widowed mother-in-law is an unpleasantly joyless church elder named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (Juan Chioran).

Bartholomew Fair

Brian Tree as Humphrey Wasp, with Alana Hawley as Grace Wellborn

Littlewit occasionally makes plays on words, then boasts that he has made a “device.” This is unfortunately typical of the play’s humor. In the same vein, Cokes is noisily amused by the fact that his first name is Bartholomew, like the name of the feast-day and fair. Cokes’s manservant Humphrey Wasp (Brian Tree) has the thankless task of protecting him from his own foolishness; of all the generally good performances in Bartholomew Fair, we liked Brian Tree’s best.

Peacock

Lucy Peacock as Ursla the pig-woman

There are plenty of villains and dubious people at the fair, including Joan Trash (Kelli Fox), a faux-cripple who sells gingerbread; Lantern Leatherhead (Cliff Saunders), who peddles cheap musical instruments and hobbyhorses and gives a puppet show. Most fantastic of all is a monstrously large seller of pork and ale named Ursla (Lucy Peacock); her tent is also the base of operations for pickpockets (who target Bartholomew Cokes), pimps, and whores.

This was our second attempt at appreciating an Elizabethan playwright besides Shakespeare. Several years ago, we tried the Stratford Festival’s Edward II, but even though we read Christopher Marlowe’s play before we went, we still had trouble following the story and staying focused on the performance.  Bartholomew Fair wasn’t hard to follow. In fact, the language of the play seemed easier to understand than some plays by Shakespeare, who was prone to inverted sentence structure and long, complex clauses.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

But our limited experience with Marlowe and Jonson simply confirms what people have known for hundreds of years: Shakespeare was in a class of his own. Ben Jonson’s characters are hardly more than caricatures; they don’t think deep thoughts, utter memorable epigrams, face great challenges, or wrestle with moral dilemmas. 

And while Bartholomew Fair has a narrative, it barely has a plot. It’s as if the playwright didn’t really expect that his audience would be playing close attention. Jonson seems to have assumed that his audience wanted only to see cliched characters indulging their carnal urges, making asses of themselves, and getting their comeuppances.

We couldn’t help thinking that Bartholomew Fair was something of a prototype for the contemporary genre of gross-out teen sex comedies like American Pie and Superbad, which have essentially the same stock characters. These follow the same formula as Bartholomew Fair: sexually frustrated young people go to a party and hook up; a repressed young thing loses her inhibitions and learns the liberating joy of sex; the local puritan is exposed as a hypocrite; the local authorities are bumbling fools who end up getting some of their own medicine.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)