Stratford has served up two history plays on this year’s bill, both about wars that are but episodes in multi-generational conflicts between England and France. One, by William Shakespeare, depicts an episode in the Hundred Years’ War, Henry V’s invasion of France. The other, by Michael Hollingsworth, depicts a conflict that, from a European perspective, was a sideshow to the epic Napoleonic Wars, and that, from an American perspective, was an ill-fated foreign adventure now nearly forgotten, but that, from a Canadian perspective, was a nation-shaping conflict: the War of 1812. These two very different productions of very different plays are good bookends to describe the impact of Des McAnuff’s tenure as Artistic Director, and good bookends as well to describe the range of possibilities in turning history, and particularly national history, into drama without turning it into myth.

The War of 1812, though it appears at Stratford, is not really a production of the Stratford company. It’s the creation of the author’s company, VideoCabaret, part of an enormous cycle of, I think, twenty-one plays covering the entirety of Canadian history from the first English and French settlements down through the premiership of Brian Mulroney. I’ve never seen any of Hollingsworth’s work before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. What I got is something like a cross between Spitting Image and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht.

The production has a tiny cast, but an enormous collection of characters, from natives like Tecumseh and the Prophet to heroes of British Canada like General Isaiah Brock to Americans (villains here, by and large) like President James Madison, and a full complement of ordinary people, soldier and civilian, aristocrats and untitled yeoman. There’s even a Quebecois cameo. Scenes come fast and furious, lasting only a few lines. Characters appear out of the shadows, dressed in lurid blues and reds and in deathmask white makeup, then vanish back into it, even within scenes – lighting is used to create what amount to “cuts,” changes in camera angle, to keep us visually interested in the small space, and keep the pace careening along. Characterization is simple and satiric – Madison whining “I’m so ill” until he gets his hit of opium from the ever-helpful Dolly; General Brock’s beloved Sophie squeaking his forename, he sighing back hers, both coming nearly to climax merely at sharing the stage together – but only more effective for that. The picture is more Brueghel than Rembrandt.

The main problem with the show is the plot, which is to say, the story of the war itself. The story of the War of 1812, as depicted by the play, is one of American hubris and zealotry meeting British professionalism – but also British snobbery. The Americans say they are coming to bring liberty and democracy to Canadians ground under the boot of King George, but really they just want land. The British Canadians say they are defending their homes, but equally they are jockeying for position in the colonial (and the metropolitan) social hierarchy, and trying to quash all this democracy nonsense to preserve the British class system. Initially, there is one clear villain – the sniveling homunculus, James Madison – and two clear heroes – General Brock and Tecumseh. But once the war is launched, Madison doesn’t really matter anymore to the action, and Brock is killed before the end of the first act, leaving Tecumseh without a Canadian ally that he respects (Brock’s replacement spends all his time retreating to more favorable ground). The focus shifts to the soldiers in the field, particularly to Fitzgibbon, leader of Brock’s “bloody boys,” a gang of guerilla cutthroats who take the fight to the Americans by stealth when the powers that be won’t permit a frontal assault, and the blunt and brutal American General Winfield Scott (“I’m General Winfield Scott – and you’re not!”), two emblems of how war, by its own logic, weeds out all sentiment, leaving only the will to prevail by any means.

That’s a powerful and timeless message – but for the last half hour of the show, that’s all there is, over and over, in one scene after another, until Napoleon is exiled, Washington is burned, and the Americans sue for peace. We don’t get the catharsis of seeing Canada become a nation under fire – but that’s not surprising; this is a satire, and even if it’s on Canada’s side against the Americans, it’s on the side of mockery against anybody’s patriotism (with the exception of the First Nations, who are not satirized but treated as tragic figures – an understandable choice, given both Tecumseh’s much-attested nobility and the tragic fate of his people, but no doubt Tecumseh and the Prophet had their own foibles and follies as well). But we also don’t get the clarity of a Brechtian anti-cathartic ending. There’s no punchline. Eventually it just ends.

But until it runs into this structural problem – which, again, is built into the war it chronicles – it’s a rollicking good ride, and very different from Stratford’s usual theatrical fare.

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William Shakespeare also wrote a play about a dubiously-justified war for land that takes its hero king, following war’s logic, from talking piously about God to murdering his French prisoners. Directed by Des McAnuff, Stratford’s production of Henry V is visually awesome. McAnuff has rebuilt the Festival octagon into a tilted square or rough timber, dominated by a massive drawbridge. Tom Rooney comes out, in contemporary civilian clothes and declares, “O, for a muse of fire” – and then another actor picks up the chorus, the narrator role being passed from hand to hand across the cast. The message: this is a story we are telling you, a story of our community, and how it came to be. And so you must listen.

I was excited by this opening, and looked forward to the freedom the cast would have to address the audience to bring the play home to us. Unfortunately, what it turned out to portend was something different: war as pageant. I never forgot that I was being shown something. Instead of being brought closer, I was pushed further away.

Part of this is a function of the that magnificent stage set. The reconfiguration of the stage forces all the action up the middle – and this results in a very linear design that inhibits a feeling of life, particularly in battle. The parade of English ships crossing the channel was gorgeous, as was the parade of English archers launching their shafts at the enemy French, but it bothered me nonetheless that I was watching a parade.

Part of it was a function of that very chorus that so excited me at the start of the show. Once they were in costume, having the cast as chorus no longer felt like we were paying told “pay attention!” but rather that we were being told “okay, now the scene’s changing and we’re going to tell you where we’re going.” Chopping up the chorus meant sacrificing giving the chorus a character, who could express excitement or irony, or whatever, and turning it into narration, but that would be worth something if it made the play more urgent, but somehow that didn’t happen (for me) once everyone was in costume.

And partly it was a function of Aaron Krohn’s Henry. Now, I’m a huge fan of Krohn, and was thrilled by his Lenny in The Homecoming last year, and he is both facile with the verse and confident with the lead. But his Henry came off to me as rather disengaged. He was good at baiting the French, and impressing his commanders with his resolve. But I kept waiting for the moment when I would see what was going on underneath. And by the end, I wasn’t sure anything was there.

There are several emotional moments that give Henry an opportunity for introspection. One is the hanging of Bardolph, which is staged very powerfully in this production. Krohn, Judas-like, kisses his old friend before condemning him to the gallows. But I couldn’t tell, looking at his face, what I was to read into this kiss. Was it real, or for show? Another is the execution of the French prisoners. This is a drawn-out affair in this production, as the prisoners are burned alive in a subterranean prison, but while others have found this particularly visceral, it struck me otherwise: as cold precisely because so premeditated. Why not just slit their throats (as they did in the last Stratford production)? To show that Henry can be this coldly, calmly cruel? Or because it’s so cool to get to light something from below?

And another is this speech:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?

This is right at the end of Harry’s night-wanderings among the men, and it’s one of a couple of moments where he comes face-to-face with his refusal of responsibility for the consequences of his actions and has to wriggle as hard as he can to escape. This behavior is evident right from the beginning of the play, in the scene where Henry asks the clergy to justify his claim to the throne of France, where he is notably eager to make it clear that if they provide that justification, then it’s on their heads if they are wrong – he’s not responsible for the death and destruction that will ensue. And he proceeds in this vein through the play – he blames the Dauphin, for his tennis balls, for the deaths that will result from the war (though the war is in no way response to mockery, but of Henry’s desire for land, and to follow his father’s advice to use foreign wars to distract from domestic discontent), and here, in talking with his soldiers, he tries to make them responsible for their actions in war, and they will have none of it. The king started the war; on the king’s head be the consequences, including individual sins.

Harry has to face this, and in this speech he does. On opening night, Krohn skipped through the speech rather as he did the role generally. I didn’t feel, listening to him, that he was brought up short. I felt like he was giving a speech – that he was selling us, unconvincingly, on the idea that he cared, rather than demonstrating that he did.

Watching Krohn, I found myself thinking of our former President, his fellow Texan, another character who proclaimed himself “the decider” and yet was assiduous about disclaiming responsibility for anything that actually happened as a consequence of his wars. The comparison isn’t a new one – a variety of fawning commentators made the comparison to Henry V in the days after 9-11, claiming that Bush had suddenly and surprisingly grown up, and become a natural war President, belying the impression of his dissipated youth. I thought at the time, “you obviously haven’t read the play,” but perhaps they had, because he wound up playing out the role, all sides thereof, more fully than many might have expected.

But my point here in making the comparison is: I thought about Bush, but that means I was thinking. I wasn’t held. I noticed how Krohn’s Henry never seemed to get a crease in his uniform, never seemed to get a spot of blood on him (at one point, he wipes his sword, but the moment – a telling one – is almost lost), but this characterization, interesting in and of itself, seemed to sort of float above the action.

I came to the conclusion that the stately pageantry of the play as a whole and the emotionally distant portrayal of the king didn’t mesh well, because they didn’t provide enough of a contrast the one to the other. If Krohn’s performance had been embedded in a wilder, messier production, the contrast would have been telling – here’s the chaos of war, and here’s Henry, wiping his sword. Or, if Krohn’s Henry had been our focal point, the king and commander, but also the critic and commentator, observing what everybody else does and also what he does, then that would have provided a contrast – the speech about “ceremony” would have been about the play as a whole, the protagonist would himself have become the alienation figure. But embedded in this production, Krohn’s Henry just felt, to me, kind of flat.

Or maybe it was just opening night. Or maybe it was the fact that I was exhausted by having seen Cymbeline earlier in the day. In any event, Krohn is a good enough actor and McAnuff a good enough director that I’m going to give them another chance in August when we go back to Canada to see if my opinion changes.

The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, but the French exceeded the English in personality and depth of characterization. Bethany Jillard was both luscious and charming as Katherine of France, while Deborah Hay spoke volumes with a tilt of her head as Alice, her lady-in-waiting. The wooing scene at the end is one of Krohn’s best of the play, and compares well with Graham Abbey and Sara Topham’s effort from a decade ago. Gareth Potter’s creepy yet somehow still winning laugh earned his Dauphin far more sympathy (from me) than is generally the case, while Juan Chioran was the picture of courtesy as the ambassador, Montjoy. By contrast, the English forces tended to bleed together, and the comic-yet-serious business of forging a nation among Scots, Irish, English and Welsh came off neither as successfully comic nor successfully serious, possibly because I didn’t believe in the martial prowess of Ben Carlson’s Fluellen, Keith Dinicol’s MacMorris, or Stephen Gartner’s Jamy. The strongest characterizations on the English side were the low-life types: Tom Rooney’s passionate Pistol, Randy Hughson’s peace-and-mischief-making Bardolph, and Lucy Peacock’s underplayed, and hence more moving, Hostess. (And credit should be given as well to Falstaff’s massive coffin, which steals the scene of the Eastcheap set’s departure for war.)

The War of 1812 telegraphs its relevance to our time, with references to wars to spread democracy and so forth. McAnuff declines to reduce Shakespeare to a “message” play for our time – and good on him for not doing so. But not only history plays but the study of history itself must always justify itself in those terms. If it does not, we’ll do it for it. McAnuff’s Henry V doesn’t give an easy answer to the question of what the significance of that war – of any war – is to those of us who merely sit and watch. That’s to his credit. But ultimately I felt he was getting at the same thing as Hollingsworth’s play. War comes for stupid reasons, and in the course of war we – all of us – are coarsened. And then, when it’s over, we tell each other a story about how important it all was to making us who we are.