Bree Welch as King Henry & Ensemble. Photo by Pin Lim.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Julia Traber
Company: Classical Theatre Company
Run Dates: October 14 – November 1, 2015
“It’s not a gimmick, really”.
It’s the refrain we often here when directors of Shakespeare make decidedly non-traditional choices in their treatments of the Bard’s work. Will Romeo and Juliet be young lovers or seniors in a retirement home (as Toronto director/playwright Mitchell Cushman did with The Last of Romeo and Juliet)? What to do about the racial casting parameters in Othello (so wonderfully discussed in this recent NYTimes article http://goo.gl/y01hXZ )? How about setting Macbeth in an asylum with one actor taking on all the roles (that’s a head nod to you, Alan Cumming)?
The list of ways creative folks have tried to modernize, sexify, shake up and just plain sever from the norm when it comes to Shakespeare could fill pages. But probably the diversion getting the most attention these days is the gender swap. Whether it’s a reversion back to the Shakespearean tradition of men playing women as was recently done with Mark Rylance’s performance of The Countess Olivia on Broadway, or the women having their go at traditionally male roles like Helen Mirren’s turn as Prospera in Julie Taymor’s filmed version of The Tempest, a dick in chick’s clothes or vice versa makes headlines.
Personally, I love boundary pushing productions of Shakespeare. While a traditional treatment can still move me if the talent onstage is there, I much prefer at this point to see something new, challenging and risky when contemplating Shakespeare’s work. But….and I must strongly qualify BUT…not if the departure is employed simply to throw newess at us in an effort to stand out from the crowd without bringing substance back to the narrative. I don’t like gimmicks in any piece of theatre, least of all Shakespeare. By all means, do your darndest to give us something fresh – but make sure it enhances understanding of the play or opens up new doors to the work we haven’t considered before.
Which brings me to Classical Theatre’s staging of Henry V with; you guessed it, a woman in the title role. Actually Director Julia Traber has cast several women in male roles in this production. Courtney Lomelo steps into the Dauphin’s enemy shoes, Lindsay Ehrhardt takes on the comic relief role of soldier Nym and Shunté Lofton delivers royal go between messages as Montjoy. But really, it’s the choice of Bree Welch as Henry V that’s the attention grabbing move in this show.
So what of it? The good news is that Welch is splendid. Traber has chosen a gender blind treatment in this production meaning that Welch is free to play the warring King not specifically as a man or a woman, but as a character. With her long hair messily worn in a ponytail and dressed in black skinny jeans, a red studded leather jacket and Doc martins, Traber has Welch (and the rest of the similarly dressed cast) looking like a they just came out from seeing The Clash. This pre sexed-up punk era look suits Welch’s task perfectly, allowing her to appear tough without hiding her feminine attributes.
But it’s how Welch’s femaleness reverberates in the dialogue and delivery that’s the most compelling. Her ‘Once more unto the breach’ is effectively forceful, but rather than a testosterone-filled battle cry it feels maternally inspiring in a tiger mom ‘we can all do this together’ kind of fashion. When sending a message back to France warning them of ‘grief crazed mothers’ if they do not yield, Welch doesn’t fire up any manly chest beating threats but rather shows a cool and in control prickliness reminiscent of Streep’s Miranda Priestly in Devil Wears Prada. But it’s the troop rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech and post battle moments where casting Welch really brings new meaning. In each instance, Welch’s eyes pool with tears in the face/ aftermath of battle, showing more emotionally intelligent insight into the risks and ravages of war than I’ve ever experienced from this character. The result is a more substantial and accessible Henry, far more attuned to his actions and comrades. Is this a female thing or simply Welch’s interpretation as an actor and are they one and the same? Hard to say, but there is no doubt that casting this actor in this role left the gimmick in the dust and instead gave us an eye-opening and terrifically compelling performance.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the rest of the production. Save for Welch, David Wald (giving a terrific turn as Chorus, our narrator) and Andrew Love (in various roles but most notably the Welsh Captain Fluellen), not a single member of the cast was up to the task of Shakespeare’s dialogue. At the best they sounded stiff, allowing their lines to resemble recitation rather than dialogue. At worst, the strain not to screw the language up resulted in some snicker-worthy moments. Additionally accents were heartily bungled (my ears are still bleeding from zee fahke Frehnch vay day spoke) and in one case an Irish soldier sounded more Jamaican patois than charmingly liltish.
Liz Freeze`s nicely moody set design which leaves the stage bare, flanking it instead with cluttered shelving and clothing hanging from racks and hooks, gave the cast great opportunities to change and grab small props on stage. However it wasn`t enough visually to hold our attention. Henry V is always a tricky play to stage with its build up to war/huge battle scenes and not much else in the way of character interaction going on. Traber tries to keep the energy up with rock music and to her credit does put the pedal to the medal moving things along in this trimmed down version, but limp fight scenes and lots of simply standing around by her cast dulls the momentum. Even the few comedic moments Shakespeare throws in to give the audience a break from Henry’s attack on France fail to offer relief due to performances unable to access the delicious humor of the language and hackneyed staging.
The Classical Theatre Company says in the show’s program that it’s been a while since they tackled Shakespeare and it shows. This is a company that puts on stellar work when it comes to other classical playwrights but seems to have a shallow talent pool at present when it comes to the Bard. Yes there is a shiny ball in Bree Welch, distracting our attention with both her commanding performance and the (as it turns out) intriguing gender factor. But no King can distract entirely from their band of brothers and while this production doesn’t die on the battlefield, it’s ultimately too painful to witness its wounds.