Henry V is performed in the Maxwell Studio (formerly known as the Studio Theatre), a colosseum-like theatre, next to the Festival theatre at the Shaw Festival in the beautiful Niagara-On-The-Lake. This performance is a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, in the gloomy ambiance of World War I. When hearing the word “adaptation”, we most likely expect repositioning Henry V to the 20th century, but this adaptation is utterly dissimilar to what is typically practiced in contemporary Shakespeare productions.
On the ground and at the center of the theatre lies the set decorated with wooden boxes, sandbags, helmets, dull blankets, coats, buckets, notebooks and small stamped envelopes. When the play starts, a dim light sits on a troop of Canadian soldiers lying down and reclining on the boxes and blankets. They are about to get involved in a dialogue concerning the events before and after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War – whilst recounting their own experiences of war.
Through the two-act production, the actors read Shakespeare’s play word by word without putting too much emotion into them, and most of the time clumsily, which feels completely natural as they are soldiers rehearsing Henry V in the middle of the war. It is ironic since it seems that these soldiers are working on the play to distract themselves from the horrifying situation they are trapped in, startled with death and destruction, and yet they practice to pretend that they are caught up in a battle with all its complications but 500 years before.
In addition to conveyance of the dialogue between the past and current experiences of war, the directors involve the audience in the conversation to effectively tell their own stories and share how they have been affected by the war.
Moving on to act two, Henry V is carried on with the help of nurses in a hospital where the soldiers — the ones who have survived — are lying on beds wounded or unconscious. This part of the play is heartbreaking and emotional as the soldiers’ frustration, anger and despair finally expel into the air. Some are reluctant to involve themselves and some are simply too exhausted but the women encourage them and participate in the play as if finishing the play is necessary and vital.
Combining the atmosphere of first world war with the Battle of Agincourt, the directors, Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll, successfully picture humans’ stubbornness, cruelty and frustration through the history of the world. The play passes on a sense of fear of the future as it demonstrates the history being repeated and relapsed. However, in the second act women appear and lighten the mood with their bright color clothes and caring characters, and clinch the play with a kiss of peace.