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Charming alfresco Henry V missing the horror of war

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Shakespeare in the Ruins couldn't have asked for a more perfect evening than it got Thursday for its long-awaited return to its open-air home at the Trappist Monastery ruins in St. Norbert.

After nine summers staging the Bard elsewhere, the troupe reclaimed its original picturesque setting on a night with no wind, no mosquitoes, lush greenery and twittering birds. The warm sunshine gradually slipped away and the company offered everyone blankets for warmth after intermission. It was lovely.

This year's production is the war-themed, male-dominated Henry V, updated by director Michelle Boulet from medieval times to the First World War. What's most surprising is it's a show full of charm and chuckles.

Boulet more than succeeds in finding every possible bit of humour and keeping us entertained. What's missing are emotional depth and a compelling, layered portrait of a young warrior-king's evolution into a towering leader.

Nine actors portray 19 English and French characters. Kevin Klassen brings marvellous energy to the Chorus (narrator), cleverly conceived as a brash war correspondent.

As the tale opens, King Henry V (Toby Hughes) receives a taunting gift from the French Dauphin: tennis balls to mock his idle, shallow youth (today's neon-bright balls are a poor choice for the period). With political pressure building, Henry declares war.

The story then traces the invasion, alternating between the smug, over-confident French and the greatly outnumbered English. (The audience picks up its supplied chairs and follows the action to different locations in "France" and "England," inside the brick-and-stone ruins and on the grounds.)

Karl Thordarson as the haughty Duke of Burgundy and Gord Tanner as the playboy-like French king are standouts. Ariel Levine captures the character of the sour, immature Dauphin, but needs to project more, vocally and physically.

Henry's ne'er-do-well drinking buddies from his prince days, Bardolf (Tanner), Pistol (Andrew Cecon) and Nym (Glen Thompson), become funny foot soldiers, along with a plucky teenage boy (the wonderfully wide-eyed Nadine Pinette).

Designer Brian Perchaluk does a fine job of evoking the Great War with touches such as barbed wire, sandbags, gas masks, a field telephone, binoculars, a snare drum and sound effects of battle.

Montjoy (Cecon), the French herald, sometimes rides in on a vintage bicycle. Boulet and Sarah Constible have composed splendid songs -- some witty, some poignant -- which the cast sings wonderfully.

One stretch of the show, acted on and near a stairway up the La Salle riverbank, is too distant from the audience. Though the actors are audible, intimacy is lost. The captivating Pinette appears here as Katherine, the French princess, who gets an adorable English lesson from her lady-in-waiting (Constible). Kudos to Boulet for casting actors who can deliver the un-translated French perfectly, though it's a tad frustrating for non-bilingual patrons.

There is, then, much to appreciate about this Henry V. But the pace and tone are so breezy that the horror and terror of war don't get the weight they deserve. Boulet has taken a bayonet to the script -- the running time is two hours, including intermission -- to the extent that too much of Henry's inner struggle to be a just, courageous king has been hacked out.

Most of his soliloquy the night before the Battle of Agincourt, in which he contrasts the heavy burden of being a monarch with an ordinary life, is missing.

As Henry, Hughes gives a low-intensity performance that stays in a narrow range, never attaining the fierce, fiery, magnificent passion the role demands.

His threat to rape and slaughter the civilians of Harfleur and his supposed anger on discovering the fate of the teenage boy are unconvincing. When he's in disguise before the Battle of Agincourt, Hughes doesn't alter his voice. His cloak is totally implausible as a disguise, greatly weakening this famous scene.

One of the most inspiring speeches in the Shakespeare canon, Henry's St. Crispin's Day call to arms ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") ought to be so stirring that it makes your heart burst out of your chest. Awkwardly staged, with Henry barely looking at his men, it's a fizzled firecracker.

Hughes fares better in the final scene that sees him awkwardly wooing Katherine. That lends a closing note of delight to a production that makes for an enjoyable outing, if not a moving portrait of a "star of England."

Theatre Review

Henry V

Shakespeare in the Ruins

To June 23

Tickets $12 to $30 at PTE box office, 942-5483

Three and a half stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 G3

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