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HENRY V by Shakespeare (mostly) at Shaw is theater at its most compelling

Henry V Soldiers march to battle

THE BASICS: HENRY V by Shakespeare, re-imagined by co-directors Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll, at the smaller (think “intense”) theater-in-the-round Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre (across the courtyard from the Festival Theatre) in Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario, runs with both matinees and evening performances, in repertory, through October 28. 1-800-511-SHAW Travel time from Buffalo? To allow for bridge traffic, parking, etc. I’d recommend two hours. Runtime: a little under 3 hours including one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Henry V by William Shakespeare, upon which this Shaw production is based (see paragraph below) describes the maturing of King Henry V of England, known from earlier plays as the wild “Prince Hal” or “Harry” who drank to excess with Falstaff and associated with the lower criminal element. Now mature, as Henry V, he takes a small military force to France, and on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, to rally his troops, he delivers the famous “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, with the often quoted “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Miraculously, the vastly outnumbered English prevail, and, in the final act, as part of the peace, Henry V marries Katherine, daughter of the French King Charles VI.

Henry V Gray Powell as Henry

In observance of the centennial of the end of World War I (11/11/1918)  the Shaw Festival is mounting several “war” plays including Shaw’s own O’FLAHERTY, V.C. and Joan Littlewood’s OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR. In this current production of HENRY V, co-created and directed by both Vancouver’s Kevin Bennett and Shawfest’s Artistic Director Tim Carroll, Henry V becomes a “play within a play.” We open, hunkered down in the trenches of World War I, as a small troop of Canadian doughboys, to alleviate the tedium, rehearses various scenes from the original Shakespeare. At the end of the first part the scene of these men, assisting each other with their gear, affixing their bayonets to their rifles, and then climbing out of their dugout to go into battle, is one of the most affecting moments of theater I’ve ever seen. After intermission, we meet those same Canadian soldiers being cared for by French nurses in a military hospital and now all, soldiers and nurses, are involved in the rehearsal/recreation of the Shakespeare play.

Henry V Damien Atkins in the trenches

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It would be hard to overstate the amount of love, and care, and attention to detail that the entire crew, directors, and actors have lavished on this marvelous production. Traditionalists may chafe at the rearrangement of scenes and occasional ad lib comments by the actors, so I say, if you want to see more traditional Shakespeare, then drive west to Stratford where even they occasionally mashup his plays, for example in 2016’s “Breath of Kings” series.

The Stratford Festival’s first production of a play by Shaw was ST. JOAN in 1975. This year’s HENRY V is the Shaw’s first ever Shakespeare and I say “Yes!” Every production of this play must be taken in context. For example, a 1944 film version starring Laurence Olivier was intended to rally enthusiasm and support of the Allies during World War II. 1989’s film version by Kenneth Branagh (made after 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” and 1987’s “Good Morning, Vietnam”) was more a haunting realistic evocation of the horrors of war.

Now, this 2018 version of HENRY V at the Shawfest highlights a number of current concerns, including how war affects our returning troops. Having a war play performed by soldiers takes the play to a deeper level than other productions might.

Another theme, central to the play, is how we view the man holding office as opposed to the office itself. From whence comes the legitimacy to rule? Perhaps no one wrestles with this question more than the king himself.

The ultimate reconciliation between the English and the French in HENRY V comes with a marriage between a French woman who can’t speak English and an English king who can’t speak French, but they are obviously in love.

The ultimate reconciliation between the English and the French in HENRY V comes with a marriage between a French woman who can’t speak English and an English king who can’t speak French, but they are obviously in love. Canada and the U.S. are both nations of immigrants and so various cultures finding points of agreement as opposed to building walls is certainly a timely topic.

With the exception of actor Gray Powell, who plays King Henry V, all of the other 48 roles are played by only 11 other actors, 6 men and 4 women, providing a bit of welcome gender equity to Shakespeare. As we found out during the Tuesday Q&A, this production has been in development a long while, and during the early days much of it was workshopped with the actors, so that in the end it has a more organic, tight-knit feel, and on the smaller Studio Theatre stage, the choreography and interaction between characters is very believable.

So, in the end, if you want every word and every scene in order, then read the play or take a course. If you want great theater, then go see HENRY V at Shawfest.

UP NEXT: The Shawfest continues into mid-October with O’FLAHERTY V.C., GRAND HOTEL, THE BARONESS AND THE PIG, OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR, THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW, and, of course, HENRY V, which, along with THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, continues into the last weekend in October. Also, you are advised to make your reservations early for the traditionally sold-out A CHRISTMAS CAROL on stage November 14 through December 23.

Photos by David Cooper | Lead image – Henry V nurses

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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