Tag Archives: Henry V

“Henry the Fifth”

at the Unicorn Theatre, Thursday 7th November 2013

“All boys want to be king,” Abdul Salis tells us by way of introduction to the story of Henry the Fifth. Not least is this true of Shane Zanza’s petulant, boyish monarch of the title, who wants nothing more in life than a “crown, power, and war”. Shakespeare’s Henry V is often presented as a fervent call-to-arms for Englishmen, as an acknowledgement that, though ‘we’ may sometimes fall by the wayside and undergo moral quagmires in times of war, goddamnit we win in the end. Ellen McDougall’s production of Ignace Cornelissen’s text (based very loosely on the Bard’s history), however, is concerned with nothing of the sort. What we are presented with is a complex, witty, theatrical presentation of the complexities of masculinity, of war, and of narration. And this is a show for kids, for Christ’s sake.

As inhabitants of England, it can often be easy to forget that Henry V is produced all over the world in multiple contexts, taking ‘England’ and ‘France’ as metaphors for opposing sides rather than literal places. Continue reading

“Henry V” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Saturday 28th July 2012

Two years ago, following the superb Henry IVs Parts 1 and 2, I begged “for Jamie Parker as Henry V at some point in the near future”. Well, my prayers were answered (yes, I like to think this was all down to me) and I wasn’t wrong; in Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Henry V at the Globe, Parker gives a wonderful performance as the charismatic king. Unfortunately, however, the production is let down by a less than impressive ensemble and rather indulgent direction.

I don’t understand how it has become normal at the Globe to have strong central performances and weak supporting actors. Granted, it’s a hard space to master, but the likes of Parker, Rylance, Allam and Best prove it’s not impossible. Why, then, do shows consistently cast actors who feel it necessary to gesticulate wildly and lose all trace of awareness of the space? It’s all well and good to do straight-laced productions of Shakespeare, but the least we expect from that is a strong cast.

One of the worst perpetrators of this in Henry V is Sam Cox, who plays Pistol as a cross between Russell Kane and Jack Sparrow but who is let down by supreme self-awareness and seems to be working by the mantra ‘do anything, as long as it gets a laugh’. Brid Brennan’s Chorus is equally uninspiring, and speaks the lines with such anger and wide-eyed menace that it’s difficult to take her seriously; there is little chance we will imagine the scenes she asks us to with such bizarre delivery. When Olivia Ross speaks her lines as the young boy, her hands seem to be imitating an air traffic controller, though she is redeemed by her sweet portrayal of Katherine.

Nigel Cooke’s Exeter injects some charisma into proceedings and Brendan O’Hea’s Fluellen is – most of the time – hilarious. But no one even comes close to matching Parker’s affable, strong-willed, knowing Harry. He walks around the stage with such ease and converses with the audience in such laid-back tones that we really do feel part of his army. “Once more unto the breach” is delivered with searing energy and when he looks you square in the eye and says “We happy few”, it’s explicit that you’re on his side. It’s only a shame he didn’t get to play the king in the same season as Hal; I suspect his performance would be even richer in a shorter timeframe.

Jonathan Fensom’s set is a disintegrated version of the Henry IV design, and the squabbles between the nations of Britain here are brought to the forefront, showing a kingdom on the edge of collapse (with so much talk of “Britain” at the moment this play comes across as supremely English). The stylised fight scenes are also a nice addition, though more enthusiasm from certain members of the cast at these points wouldn’t go amiss.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about this production, especially considering so many aspects are taken from the previous Henry IVs, is that it shows Henry V to be very much a play which only makes sense in the context of the histories. The Falstaff scenes are lost on much of the audience and some of the characters are paper-thin in this play without the aid of previous narratives. The fact Dromgoole doesn’t attempt to smooth over these issues is an oversight, and though Parker shines, its difficult not to think he’s driving a slightly faulty vehicle.

Latitude 2012

Thursday 12th – Sunday 15th July 2012

There is an ever-pervasive sense of irony present at Latitude; tens of thousands of liberal lefties flock to Suffolk every year for a festival which boasts green and ethical credentials but which is run by the gigantic Festival Republic, charges £189 for a ticket and thrives on commercialism. All whilst teens flaunting their ‘alternative’ music and fashion tastes in tweed jackets jump up and down to Bon Iver in innumerable quantities, making their ‘alternative’ label redundant.

So getting away from this odd situation in the theatre tent in the forest is a necessity from time to time, just to make sure we’re not being drowned in irony. I hate to generalise, but the theatre on offer at this year’s festival seemed to fit into two camps (at least from what I saw): the truly brilliant or the truly awful.

I’ll start with the latter so I can finish this retrospective on a high note. Unfortunately, the theatre organisers at the festival seem to commission a lot of companies to do work for them without checking that these groups have created a work of quality. Though I understand it’s tough to do theatre outside whilst competing against sound from bands, Theatre Delicatessen’s Henry V  included only a few actors who seemed to have been trained in projection and in any case merely resembled a low-key and lazy version of the National Theatre’s 2003 production. The Just Price of Flowers, by Stan’s Cafe, attempts to make the 2008 financial crisis more digestible and entertaining by demonstrating its similarities to tulip trading in 17th century Netherlands, but is far too long, monotonous and dull. The Brechtian techniques it uses fall flat due to this repetition and the few endearing moments can be easily overlooked due to the lack of variety. Harold in Havana, a rehearsed reading of snippets of Pinter’s work which was taken to Cuba last year and including David Bradley, Adjoa Andoh and Janie Dee, suffered from the same thing; the piece ran forty minutes over its advertised one hour running time and was simply too repetitive and indulgent to be enjoyable.

Nabokov’s Symphony was also somewhat disappointing, though it did at least remember it was in a festival setting; the production is a trio of plays written by Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne which uses monologue and duologue to tell stories, each of which is interspersed with original songs. The pieces improve as the evening goes on, but each is let down by an abundance of cliché (understandable for a twenty-minute play, perhaps) and shoddy sound. Look Left, Look Right’s Not Another Musical is difficult to watch for the same reasons. Though it went down well with the audience at Latitude, the tongue-in-cheek humour feels lazy and not enough work has been put in to each of the four mini-musicals to make them a genuine satire of the genre.

Aside from RashDash Theatre’s superb Set Fire to Everything, which uses song and music to comment on the difficulties of modern life, the better theatre at the festival was that which, as far as I can tell, had not been created specifically for this setting. Action to the Word’s A Clockwork Orange makes Anthony Burgess’ dreadful script work as a stylised piece of theatre, which commits completely to the all-male cast and manages to make the story relevent to our post-Soviet world. Bank Puppets’ Swamp Juice, though created for children, includes some of the most inventive and funny puppetry I’ve seen and finishes with a genuinely impressive 3D sequence. Theatre Ad Infinatum’s Translunar Paradise, which, like A Clockwork Orange and Swamp Juice, also premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is a beautiful representation of love, devoid of cliché and featuring hypnotic movement. It is ideal for a festival setting, favouring music and visual aids over speaking and wrenching us away from the madness outside the tent.

The theatrical highlight of the festival came, for me, in the unlikely White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by the Gate Theatre. The play is only given to the performer, in this case Marcus Brigstocke, as they come onto stage, and is little more than a dialogue between audience, actor and author, but it is without a doubt one of the most challenging and innovative pieces of writing I’ve seen in the past year, creating drama unlike any I have ever witnessed in a theatre. For various reasons it’s difficult to go into much detail, but trust me, if you can a chance, this is a must-see.

More than anything, the theatre at Latitude 2012 raised questions about the nature of staging productions in festival environments;  the productions which worked were simply well-made and thoughtful pieces. It was frustrating to watch so many companies trying to jump over hurdle six before clearing hurdle one; the work itself must first be of a high standard before trying to make it work in a specific environment. In a festival full of irony, the irony here was that the best performances came straight from conventional settings and weren’t trying hard to work amid the hubub outside, fuelling the idea that the best theatre can work anywhere.

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“Henry V” by William Shakespeare

Thank goodness a company has stepped up to the mark to criticise England amid the throng clamouring to declare their undying love for the country. In his production of Henry V, Edward Hall shows us that the king is not as much of a hero as me may like him to be; here, he is a tyrant, not caring about anything but his own lust for power and prestige.

The play is performed by a modern-day band of brothers, dressed in khaki and donning costumes which are collected from a range of centuries. Michael Pavelka’s scaffold set is made to feel like an oppressive box, and acts as a container for these boys and their toys. In true Propellor style, scene changes are fantastic and underlined with an eclectic soundtrack (which includes London Calling).

Hall demonstrates that male camaraderie should not be praised so highly, as these men unwaveringly take the lives of others in order to seem more masculine. Dugland Bruce-Lockart’s Henry, a little older than most who play the role, and looking like a slim Kenneth Branagh, is actually quite terrifying, presiding over the other men with only experience to fall back on. He worms his way into people’s pockets with a deceitful charm before snapping at them at the slightest hint of betrayal.

It does feel like there is a neglect of an overall aesthetic, which would be forgiven if more were made of the framing device of soldiers producing a play, and the decision hasn’t quite been made as to whether an audience is supposed to laugh or not, meaning we feel unnecessarily aware of our reactions. Nevertheless, the show is slick and pacey (though the second act feels about ten minutes too long) and Ben Ormerod offers up some impressive lighting during the battle scenes.

This being an ensemble company in the truest sense, it’s difficult to pick out performances, but Chris Myles’ Exeter is quietly menacing and Nick Asbury’s Montjoy has a slimy quietude; his descent into a gibbering wreck at the close of the play is astonishing. As Pistol, Bardolph and the Boy, Vince Leigh, Gary Shelford and Karl Davies are a brilliant threesome, making their demise all the more tragic.

Hall is not afraid here to suggest that England has drifted dangerously close to tyranny in the past, and by setting the framing device in a modern war zone he tells us not to let our guard down. By showing Henry V to be a play about tyranny, it brings it in line with the likes of Macbeth and Richard III, asking us to re-examine England’s influence and behaviour on the contemporary world stage.