Henry the Fifth in Vancouver

Peter Birnie, Vancouver Sun Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Children’s Festival: Madcap Henry the Fifth floats on innovation

HENRY THE FIFTH Variety Theatre,

The brightest heaven of invention can be found in live theatre, where an audience’s imaginary forces must work to create kingdoms and battles, soldiers and horses. That’s what we’re told in the prologue to Shakespeare’s King Henry V, and a very loose adaptation of that powerful play proves to be especially dependent on our ability to conjure up stage magic.

At the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, a special performance of Henry the Fifth on Monday night felt like an archetypal international experience. First, English stand-up comedian James Campbell thanked the festival’s sponsors in a funny sketch performed with a young Canadian cohort, festival director Lindy Sisson’s 12-year-old son Jeremy.

Germany ‘s Theatre Gruene Sosse perform Henry the Fifth.

Then Theatre Gruene Sosse, a troupe from Frankfurt, Germany, directed by Inez Derksen from the Netherlands, presented their English-language version of Heinrich der F├╝nfte – first produced in 1992 by a Belgian, Ignace Cornelissen. With strong German accents, a woman (Friederike Schreiber) and a trio of men (Sigi Herold, Willy Combecher, Horst Kiss) portrayed French and English kings and queens with an interesting, EU sort of disregard for conventional borders.

The result is an oddity that should appeal to kids eight and up. I’d like to see pre-teens and teens show up to enjoy these antics, because all too often the fun to be found can be buried in a blur of full, flowery Shakespearean text.

Here, however, the accented English is spoken in an entirely modern idiom. Henry is a foolish and flighty prince, his rival the dauphin a pompous prat and Katherine, who will marry one and then the other, is a feisty French princess determined to remain true to herself.

In this highly simplified story, Henry hates living in a drafty old castle and finds a much nicer property in France – represented by a sandcastle sitting on a table. With the help of a narrator whose big book holds the whole story, Henry learns he has a right to claim said sandcastle, and indeed all of France, as his own.

Needless to say, the French aren’t going away without a struggle. The castle on a table stands inside a boxing ring, swords and shields will be bashed about and the end result is a sandy mess symbolizing the insanity of war.

Far from being beholden to the Bard, Henry the Fifth is able to float (look for further symbolism in an array of helium-filled balloons) on its own theatrical innovation, finding fun in an ongoing battle between the narrator and those he controls. The result is rather madcap, and although it’s not worth a dot as actual history, this is a fun way to play with theatre when you’re too young for Titus Andronicus.

Vancouver Sun Theatre Critic

pbirnie@png.canwest.com