Henry’s national battle

16th century England meets 20th century Canada

Though occasionally overwrought, this modern version of Henry V mostly manages to stick to the message.
Though occasionally overwrought, this modern version of Henry V mostly manages to stick to the message.
Credit: 
Supplied by Tim Fort

Theatre Review: Henry V @ Chernoff Hall, until Oct. 21

Under the direction of Alex Dault, and with production from Liam Karry, Single Thread transfers Shakespeare’s Henry V into a familiar contemporary setting—1970s Quebec. Swords to guns, men to women, castles to skyscrapers, the 16th century to the 20th: there are endless attempts to convey Shakespeare in a more relevant light.

What distinguishes Single Thread’s attempt isn’t their application of a modernized framework—rather, it’s how they changed some of Shakespeare’s words, characters, and cultures in an attempt to create a relevant and immediate theatrical experience. With references to Dalton McGuinty, Sir John A. Macdonald, Aberdeen Street and a humourously choreographed fight over a hockey stick, this production has the potential to engage both Shakespearian scholars and those unfamiliar with the Bard.

One of Shakespeare’s classical historical plays, Henry V documents the rise of King Henry V of England, a noble leader who epitomizes classical heroism, and his quest to establish the right to the nation of France.

He’s received with defiance from the French, who insult him by giving him a crate of tennis balls. Henry and crew conclude that an invasion of France is their only option. Mutiny, inspirational monologues, and malignant violence ensue.

Single Thread's production has nothing to do with the rivalry between England and France. Instead of King Henry, we are introduced to Harry England (Rob Lampard), leader of a sovereigntist French-Canadian group reminiscent of the FLQ. England’s character is established as an ideal leader who is loved by his people and greeted with praise and celebration wherever he goes. Despite his morally
questionable resolve, England is presented as an unquestionable hero for the majority of the production, thanks to Lampard’s convincing performance. The federal government of Canada replaces the cultural antagonist of France, which places the play deeply inside the political context of 1970s Quebec. Shakespeare’s traditional plot line follows with the sovereigntist group and the federalists, posing the potential for a cluttered performance. With the languageand character transformations involved, it’s an ambitious undertaking that requires much imagination and clear direction to remain comprehensible. The production is aware of these potentially disorienting
alterations and attempts to unite the production through its visuals. With clever lighting, the audience is able to travel through the constant reversals of language and culture without much disarray. A
minimalist set outside Chernoff Hall reminiscent of the Elizabethan stage, comprised of a small, reversible stage block that exhibits the Canadian Flag on one side and the Fleur-de-lis on the other,
emphasizes the dramatic shifts. The relatively large ensemble cast works together well to aid the flow of the production, and much needed humour is added by Keith Bennie (the Dolphin) and Simon Paabor (the King) on the federal floor.

As is typical of most plays that thrive on reinterpretation for pragmatic expression, Henry V occasionally loses the boisterous elegance and entertainment of the original setting. The staging occasionally suffers from overwrought allusions where simpler expressions would suffice. Yet Henry V recovers through its scenes of pointed dramatics. Despite minor flaws, the production is successful in
transforming one of Shakespeare’s greatest historical pieces into a relevant and intimate experience, remarking on the importance of nationhood and stressing the significance of political voices in action.

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