James MacLean as Henry V. ( Michelle Raine)
I think the French princess puts it best when the English king Henry V tries to woo her after killing thousands of her countrymen.
“Is it possible dat I sould love de ennemie of France?”
This cute scene is the capper on an intense play about war and a portrait of an often ruthless, heroic king, in a blazing performance by James MacLean.
Shakespeare by the Sea brings the bard’s history play alive with 13 actors at high volume with great energy and visuals at Point Pleasant Park after staging it over 20 years ago in the Halifax Citadel.
The acting is very fine with some lovely, quick character shifts in this two-hour show, directed by Jesse MacLean. Henry the Fifth features a great use of music, both propulsive and soulful, strong movement and visually rich costumes that are simple, stark and inventive.
With a personal family history that includes the loss four young men to the First World War, I find it hard to embrace Henry’s war on France and his rousing of the troops – though MacLean’s vein-popping delivery of the famous St Crispin’s Day speech is quite something. (Laurence Olivier delivered this speech to raise British spirits during the Second World War.)
However, I agree with the soldiers who wonder why they follow a king into certain death. It’s hard to see the princess – as one of history’s long line of female pawns – submit herself to a political alliance – in a comical love scene of language mix-ups (with a good bit of audience interaction.)
The first act is very political and expository. The second act is more engaging and thought-provoking.
When Shakespeare wrote Henry the Fifth around 1599, he was portraying a heroic, though flawed, medieval king, exploring ideas of leadership and celebrating the famous, 1415 battle at Agincourt, an unexpected victory for the outnumbered English and considered to be one of the greatest English victories in the Hundred Years’ War.
The battle scenes come alive with actors dashing about and shouting and doing combat with steel rods as swords and smaller rods as daggers for slitting throats.
The English are in black and red (the colour of blood and rage and war) in jackets with stencils of the British lion, the French in muted dark blues with silver epaulettes and the fleur-de-lis. Designer Bianca Tufford adds a bit of lace mesh to Nathan Simmons’ jacket sleeve to suggest armour. Velvet drapery signals royalty.
The entire ensemble cast rises to the challenge of multiple characters and different locations. Garry Williams is good as both the addled and weak French king and the sad figure of Falstaff, previously a merry reprobate and Prince Hal’s pal, now turfed out by the prince who became king.
Also notable are Adrian Choong as the French ambassador and a common English soldier duped by his king in disguise, Tom Gordon Smith and Drew O’Hara in numerous roles – they both do drunk very well; Dylan Brentwood as a Welsh captain, Sophie Schade as the princess, Jade Douris as the boy, Kathryn McCormack as a noble supporter of Henry’s and Deivan Steele as a passionate French soldier.
There is little philosophizing in Henry the Fifth, but as it ends there is a poignant sense that this particular cycle of war and peace, ruptured lives and new alliances, will happen over and over again as part of the eternal human story.
Henry the Fifth runs in repertory with The Wizard of Oz and Love’s Labour’s Lost, opening July 26, to Aug. 31, at 7 p.m. at the Cambridge Battery, Point Pleasant Park (upper entrance). In the event of rain and for weekend matinees plays are staged in Park Place Theatre (lower park entrance). Suggested donation is $20. Season ender is the Unrehearsed Dream on Sept. 1; ( https://www.shakespearebythesea.ca/schedule.)