A timely tale of war in all its glory, horror and minimalism
The Gazette, November 6, 2010
Shakespeare's Henry V evokes the image of a valiant Sir Laurence Olivier from his 1944 Second World War propaganda film, or the stubborn visage of Kenneth Branagh in his 1989 Henry V film, which highlighted the sorry carnage of war.
Both interpretations were true, in their own fashion, to the text, given the vacillating viewpoints of the king.
The cocky Prince Hal of the Henry IV plays, now bearing the mantle of power, at first seems eager for battle, then, once he has experienced it, waxes philosophical on the nature of war.
All this to say that Henry V is a most appropriate play for that time of year when red poppies appear on lapels.
Persephone Theatre's production of Henry V, which opened this week at the Monument National studio, is a truncated version with 14 actors (two of them women) portraying the play's 40-plus characters.
Co-director and Persephone founder Gabrielle Soskin has, as usual, cast from the ever-widening pool of Montreal anglophone actors whose employment options don't include the francophone-dominated mainstream in Quebec. Most of them are recent graduates of John Abbott College, Concordia University or Dawson College.
Soskin, who taught drama at John Abbott, knows her Shakespeare well. This Henry V is intelligent, straightforward, austerely presented in the three-quarter round, on a platform furnished only with movable black cubes, with two royal purple drapes hanging in the background. It's storytelling theatre that takes its cue from the prologue: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them."
Aaron Turner's King Henry V has a very modern swagger, but he gradually proves capable of mastering key scenes, speeches (the St. Crispin's Day call to arms) and famous lines: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more." He's certainly good enough to deserve a better costume that fits.
The basic uniform worn for chorus scenes is a sleeveless undershirt with army pants. Coats, capes or crowns are added for nobles. The Battle of Agincourt is carried out with daggers, swords and submachine guns, all made of red plastic.
Christopher Moore, who co-directed, plays both Montjoy the messenger and the servant boy with glowing precision. Joel Fishbane makes a strong impression as the wily Pistol. Dustin Ruck is a solid Fluellen, Travis Martin a determined Westmoreland.
Jaa Smith-Johnson plays both sides of the conflict, as Cambridge and Orleans. Toma Weideman, David Sklar and Owen Clark, too, do double or triple duty.
Clive Brewer, the sole elder in the cast, stands out as Exeter. You know you're watching budding-professionals theatre when the King of France (Alex Goldrich) doesn't appear to be any older than his son, the Dauphin (Davide Chiazzese).
Julianna Kun, who plays multiple roles, is at her best in the bilingual courtship scene. This is where Karine Lefebvre shines, too, as the coquettish Katherine of France, baffled by her awkward British royal suitor.
The peaceful mood of this scene is broken by an epilogue reminding us that Henry V's son (Henry VI) lost control of the state, leaving England to bleed once again. When it comes to war, we may remember, but we never learn.
Henry V, by William Shakespeare, is at the Monument National, 1182 St. Laurent Blvd., until Nov. 13. Tickets cost $25, $15 for students. For more information, call 514-871-2224 or go to www.persephoneproductions.org.
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