STRATFORD, ONTARIO — Of all of William Shakespeare's plays, "Henry V" is the drama most often interpreted as patriotically British. In the 1944 film version, Laurence Olivier used the young king's inspiring St. Crispin's Day speech, with its soaring rhetoric hailing "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers," to inspire his countrymen to fight not against the French forces in the play but against their real-life Nazi foes. But, in this of all summers, when the Union Jack is flying across London hailing the remarkable achievements of British athletes, and when film director Danny Boyle unveiled a new and inclusive celebration of English history as the stunning opener to the Olympic Games, you just don't expect the gigantic flag that the audacious Des McAnuff unfurls at the end of "Henry V," his last Shakespeare production as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
It's not the Union Jack that falls the height of the famous Festival Theatre as part of Robert Brill's set, full of the designer's love of soaring vertical lines. It's the maple leaf.
The Canadian flag arrives shortly after the defeated French king has given up his daughter to his conqueror, so, he says, that France and England "whose very shores look pale with envy of each other's happiness may cease their hatred."
And just as you're processing what McAnuff means by that, there's a loud sound cue. Even though McAnuff's production (prologue aside) has been staged in what reads mostly as period-appropriate dress, you leave the theater to the strains of "Revolution," from the Beatles' "White Album." I swear, a few minutes before walking into the theater, I'd just watched Paul McCartney, credited with co-writing that song, lead an Olympic stadium in a sweet singalong of "All You Need Is Love." Such cultural collisions are why we go to the theater.
As his personal exit music (although he will return to direct), the perennial bad boy McAnuff — one of the globe's most interesting interpreters of a populist brand of Shakespeare — has staged a visual climax of most delicious ambivalence. Is McAnuff positing Canada as the peaceful manifestation of what the defeated French king was talking about, a country where the French and English live in relative peace? A slightly dull but lovable utopia, in other words, competing, a little more gently than others, for its own version of Olympic gold?
Or did he have in mind that Quebec license plate, the one with the slogan "Je me souviens" ("I remember")? That's ambivalent too: It can be seen as touristique and a benign determination to recall the past and appreciate the present. Yet the context of the original quotation actually involves the old floral emblems of France and England. Perhaps McAnuff is arguing that the old enmity, maybe even the old English-French oppression, have merely moved across the Atlantic to bubble on through time. And, of course, he's doing so in Ontario, not Quebec, in a theater founded by Tyrone Guthrie, a Brit not too far removed from the Olivier mode.
That was all up for debate in a fine Canadian production of a play that always works best when you're never sure if it's a celebration of war and bravery or a detailing of the consequences of the arrogant folly that starts most of our wars. But there was another interesting matter in play. Most past productions of "Henry V" at Stratford, an Anglophile institution throughout its 60-year history, have taken their cue from Olivier and cut the scene where Henry, strapped for resources, orders his men to butcher their French prisoners. McAnuff leaves that part in. How un-Canadian.
McAnuff's leading actor, a young and hyperarticulate American (and that's always controversial here) named Aaron Krohn, actually is a fine embodiment of this main theme: He constantly walks the line between arrogant youth of privilege and effective leader, putting you in mind of everyone at the office whose political skills, or nepotistic advantages, have eclipsed your own. The contrast between Krohn, both magnetic and deeply irritating, and the wise, sad-eyed Richard Binsley, who plays King Charles VI of France (and the equally poignant Juan Chioran, who plays his ambassador), could not be more acute. The French king, we feel, even gets eclipsed by his daughter Catherine (Bethany Jillard), a young Frenchwoman who seems altogether too interested in flirting with a powerful Englishman for a woman with merely expedient instructions from her papa. Kids like to pick winners.
McAnuff and Krohn miss some opportunities with the famous "once more unto the breach" speech, which they breeze past awkwardly, when they should have used it to expand on central themes. But that's a minor flaw in a truly fascinating production, ideal to shake up an Olympic summer of apparent global content.