Henry V: an awful rewrite

publicity photo for Henry V at Bard on the Beach

It looks good, it just doesn’t feel good. That’s Kate Besworth on Amir Ofek’s set. (Photo by Tim Matheson)

Director Lois Anderson hasn’t just adapted Shakespeare’s Henry V for Bard on the Beach, she has attempted to rewrite it — and the results are a mess.

In Henry V, the reckless young Prince Hal of Henry IV, turns into a warrior whose troops slaughter the French at the Battle of Agincourt. The original play has disparate threads. Viewing it from one angle, we see the emergence of a military hero. Played from this direction, Henry V can be patriotic, even warmongering. But the play is also very clearly a critique of war. Its title character can be seen as Machiavellian and ruthless.

That is the richness of Henry V, which Anderson flattens into a simplistic anti-war statement. I’m an anti-war guy, but the words Anderson puts into Chorus’s mouth are painfully sophomoric. “War never ends,” Chorus solemnly informs us in newly minted text. “That’s how war begins,” Chorus adds after Henry’s advisors convince him he has a rightful claim to territory held by the French. And, if we’re curious about the machinations, we’re told to “Follow the money.”

“Toxic masculinity” is also on Anderson’s hit list: that’s what Anderson’s Chorus accuses the French prince, the Dauphin, of. I can’t remember if that’s before or after we see him shadowboxing pugnaciously. “Boys will be boys,” Chorus sighs.

To realize her vision, the director restructures the play. In her telling, which is set in an apocalyptic future, a small travelling company performs Henry V, seeking in it elements of love — which is, of course, a distortion that leads to considerable confusion.

The rewriting is awful. “The heart, funny little organ,” Chorus muses. “To start a war, do you have to cut up your heart? That is the million-dollar question.” And there are songs that include lyrics such as “Love is the root of a bunch of different things.” This particular piece of naivete is likely deliberate, but that’s hardly an excuse.

In the original, Chorus has some of the most beautiful speeches in the English language. Here, she also says a bunch of dumb shit, including things like “Henry remembers” to introduce a flashback that goes all the way to Henry IV and “The memory fades” when the flashback is over.

To make matters worse, in this production, you can’t even hear the poetry of the original text. Anderson cuts up Henry’s monologue, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” which he delivers to his troops during the siege of Harfleur, and assigns its pieces to Henry’s generals — so, rather than being an inspiring military leader, Henry becomes a dithering youth, led into battle by evil agents. This might be okay if it didn’t make his progression as a character so incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, key actors in this production – Emilie Leclerc as Chorus and Kate Besworth as Henry — have neither the skill with verse nor the vocal suppleness required to fully explore Shakespeare’s text. I’ve never been a Voice Beautiful kind of guy. I’m not looking for plumminess. But, when Besworth delivers Henry’s St. Crispian’s Day speech — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” — her tone is so thin that she sounds like a shrill kid. Leclerc’s voice is similarly limited.

To be fair, Besworth’s Henry does have his moments, mostly when he is at his most innocent, when he asks early on, for instance, “Might I with conscience make this claim?” and later, when he’s bashfully wooing Katharine, the French princess.

Marlee Griffiths brings genuine charm to Katharine. And Billy Marchenski is chillingly lethal as the bloodthirsty Exeter.

There are couple of moments of successful staging within Anderson’s vision: an armada of folded paper boats in that prologue I mentioned, for instance. And the Battle of Agincourt is striking: sudden harsh light, clattering sound, and slow-motion chaos.

Throughout, the design elements sing. As soon as you enter the tent, Amir Ofek’s set creates a striking environment and sense of event: he has draped the tent’s interior with an inner skin of stitched-together burlap sacks. The effect is lyrical and wrecked at the same time. And lighting designer Sophie Tang has a field day with the burlap, illuminating it warmly from both sides and contrasting that warmth with surgically blue light when harshness is required. I’m also a big fan of Joelysa Pankanea’s sound design and compositions, especially the subtlety of the ambient sounds she uses, including distant rumblings and the quiet whinnying of a lone horse. Mara Gottler’s costume designs are superb — coherent in their muted raggedness, they also clearly differentiate the various groups. And many of the individual pieces — including Mistress Quickly’s multi-pocketed smock ad Queen Isabelle’s elegant tunic — are exquisite.

If you’re thinking of railing against this review because I “only want to see Shakespeare done one way”, save your breath. It’s not true. I’m all for adventure with Shakespearean texts. A few years ago, I loved Anderson’s thorough reworking of Pericles, for instance. That time out it worked. This time it doesn’t.

HENRY V Based on the play by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Lois Anderson. On Wednesday, July 5. A Bard the Beach production running on the Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Tent until August 13. Tickets and info

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.


  1. Sean Lundy says:

    Visiting friends in Vancouver over the weekend, I was very much looking forward to taking in the Bard on the Beach adaptation of Henry V. My excitement and hope for a compelling performance dipped in the first 5 minutes and after I caught wind of what Chorus was up to, and the frail, emotional wreck of the young king, I settled in for the long and painful ride of this production. I looked up reviews today to try to put words to the experience and was amazed at how well the play had been received by some. Thank you, Colin Thomas, for your thoughtful and accurate review.

  2. Roger Blenman says:

    I’m “glad it wasn’t just me” over the thinness of the voices in delivering what might have been powerful speeches. Similarly I swooned over the set design and thought the costuming effective. The colouring, including lighting, I found marvellous.
    Kate Besworth made a vigorous defence of the director’s casting choice during last Tuesday’s talk back, mentioning that the feminine brought a physicality and vulnerability to the character, and allowed for his transformation. I do believe that casting is about acting foremost (and not say, about gender, race, or resemblance) BUT when the key to the humanity of a work lies in the heart of a boy/man/king struggling perhaps to fill a god-given masculine armour, and the physical manifestation of this struggle in so painfully absent from the manner and movement of the principal I begin to question my beliefs. This is deeply uncomfortable place to be after seeing what might have otherwise been a rewarding experience.

  3. Richard Goodwin says:

    I went to hear the St.Crispins Day speech and it was slaughtered to fit Anderson’s narrative. I know Shakespeare invented many cliches and words, but I don’t think “toxic masculinity” was one of them.

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