By Marc Seltzer
William Shakespeare wrote English history into many of his plays. His Henry V chronicles the famed 15th century battle of Agincourt, in which an outnumbered regiment of Welsh and English soldiers, led by a young, devout King Henry V, faced a substantially larger army of Frenchmen.
Shakespeare’s audience were Londoners at the turn of the 16th century. He schooled them in history even while he took liberties with fact to create stories of dramatic irony, intriguing character and English glory. Henry V does not display the dark ingenuity and twisted psychology of a Hamlet or Macbeth. There are no ghosts or witches, no vaulting ambition, murderous madness or overleap of the rules of royal succession. Instead, Henry V is a beautiful examination of monarchal leadership, as Europe emerged from feudal hierarchy.
The Persephone production at the Monument-National presents a lively and fast-moving Henry V. The large and able cast is led by Aaron Turner as King Henry. Turner, and other standouts Alex Goldrich, Christopher Moore, Clive Brewer, Karine Lefebvre and Dustin Ruck, each playing a number of characters, keep the lines flowing gracefully, bringing the richness and complexity of Shakespeare’s tongue to life.
King Harry, as Henry V was known, is the good king, true to his country and to God. Yet this is far from fairy-tale. Harry is tested by a series of obstacles from traitors among the English lords and butchery by the French, to scenes of doubt and misbehavior among his common troops. The King is an absolute monarch. His will must be obeyed. But in Shakespeare’s portrayal, the king’s nobility of spirit and justness of command make right the world: Traitors pray thanks that their plots are uncovered before harm can result; even a childhood friend of the king is not spared punishment, where just rule is broken; and loyal kinsmen prefer to face the enemy outnumbered thus to gain the greater glory if they prevail.
Co-directed by Gabrielle Soskin and Christopher Moore, the production uses the large cast to great effect in scenes with choreographed movements and unified voices. Costumes, by Sabrina Miller, conjured an army, but were at times confusing, especially where actors took on multiple roles. Moreover, the weapons and additional vague references to modern warfare did not resonate through a unified production theme.
However, in a week in which the leaders of present day Great Britain and France announced that they would combine their nuclear testing programs in an effort to save costs and further solidify their mutual security interests, one can admire the long path of history. As Henry V plays Montreal, les Anglais et les Français have opportunity to see a worthy production by the bard of Avon.
After seeing the stage production, you may enjoy one of the great film versions of Henry V, Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 triumph or Lawrence Olivier’s 1944 timely production. Branagh’s staging and delivery of the St. Crispian’s speech “And gentlemen in England now a-bed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here“ would make Shakespeare stand at reveille, while Lawrence Olivier’s wooing of Princess Katherine gushes charm and respect at a profound moment of cross-channel cooperation.
At the Monument-National, 1182 St.-Laurent Blvd., Montreal Wednesday through Saturday until November 13, at 8:30 p.m., and matinée times Friday November 12th at 12:30 p.m. and Saturday November 13, at 2:00 p.m.