Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Henry V and the Canadian Context

Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Henry V and the Canadian Context

Article excerpt

Henry V and the Canadian context

Henry V. Dir. Des McAnuff. Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Ontario, Canada.

Julius Caesar. Dir. Gregory Doran. Royal Shakespeare Company.

Reviewed by Coen Heijes

Henry V and the Canadian context

Since its start in 1953 in a big canvas tent -with a production of Richard III featuring Alec Guinness-, the little town of Stratford, Ontario (Canada) has grown to be home to the largest classical theatre company in North America. Situated on the river Avon -named after its famous British counterpart-, this Canadian town of approximately 30,000 inhabitants -about the same size as Stratford-upon-Avon- started a tradition of a theatre festival dedicated to the works of Shakespeare. Under the driving force of Stratford-born journalist Tom Patterson and the first artistic director -the famous British actor Tyrone Guthrie- work was begun on a thrust stage theatre inside the canvas tent by theatre designer Tanya Moisewitsch. The thrust stage in Stratford was revolutionary at the time and provided inspiration for many venues around the world -including the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York, the Chichester Festival Theatre and the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in England, and the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre in London. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival - running from April to November- has meanwhile grown to be a festival which draws more than 500,000 visitors every year in four different theatres. Although the plays of William Shakespeare form the origin and core of the repertoire, the Stratford Festival also hosts operetta and musical theatre, works by contemporary playwrights, and productions of older, renowned playwrights, such as the ancient Greeks, Molière, Racine, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams. In the summer of 2012, the American-Canadian director Des McAnuffdirected his last play as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Henry V. At Stratford he produced more than 80 plays and directed 12 of them over a period of 6 years, and the last production in Stratford of this highly decorated artistic director -he was awarded a Laurence Olivier Award, two Tony Awards, and the Order of Canada- was much looked forward to. For McAnuffhimself too, Henry V was a play which he had wanted to direct for some thirty years - ever since he had started his Shakespearean career with a production of Henry IV.1, when the original plan to do the whole tetralogy fell through.

Now, Henry V is a play which elicits mixed interpretations from critics. On the one hand it is considered jingoistic: in fact it is rarely performed outside of the U.K. and it was not staged in France, for example, until 1999. This patriotic interpretation had roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and the 1944 film starring Laurence Olivier built on this interpretation with an ideal warrior-king triumphant over foreign enemies. On the other hand, more recent interpretations have shown Henry V to be a play about a ruthless, Machiavellian king fighting a vicious and unjust war. Anti-war sentiments after World War II have resulted in productions following this interpretation and in 1977 Norman Rabkin (Shakespeare Quarterly 28.3: 279-96) described the play through the metaphor of a black and white trick picture which can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck. Productions of Henry V have tended to choose one of these interpretations and Rabkin argued that no compromise was possible between the two: One saw either the rabbit in the trick drawing or the duck. More recently, productions have attempted to veer away from this dichotomy and bring out the ambivalence of the play, as in the latest Henry V in Michael Boyd's RSC History Cycle (2007/2008). Although Henry V is rarely performed outside the U.K., Canada is an exception to the rule, with no less than 6 productions -including the latest by McAnuff- at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. …

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