Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Review Henry V

Henry V
by William Shakespeare 

Wild About Harry

This Henry V begins with a Mary-Beard-like veteran academic, an orange-scarfed Chorus (Charlotte Cornwell) urging us to exercise our minds on the history of Henry V and the war against France

After patiently explaining the male succession to the crown, it is this gray haired tutor who has the prerogative to annoint a King Henry from among the modern young people milling around on stage. She chooses, naturally, a woman (Michelle Terry), in a nifty Prince of Wales check three-piece short-trousered suit with red rosebud lipsticked mouth and something of Le Petit Prince about her.

During our lifetimes, TLT and her own peacenik horsepower sidekick never had occasion, until now, to view  Henry V as problematic. It had the infinite capacity to chime with both patriotism and pacificism and Britain was safely esconced in Europe geographically and politically in a way Shakespeare never envisaged.

But now it has to accommodate uncharted territory. The bureaucratic seismic shift of Brexit and a war, or rather in our times technically a conflict, with real flesh and blood maimed and lives lost, transformed into a report. These are uncertain times and this uncertainty, for better and for worse, pulses through director Robert Hastie's production of Shakespeare's history play.

The single-minded pursuing of conquest despite the uncertainty, on a metal grid stage designed by Anna Fleischle amidst the greenery of Regent's Park, proved more visceral for us than the gender bending casting. The delicate mash up costuming matches the mood -  crumpled red velvet surrounded by a gold crown sitting on the head of a diminutive but authoritative King Harry and a taller, darker decadent Dauphin (Alex Bhat) with an Amadeus laugh. 

For it's not the older heads, not even the scheming Church of England leader (David Sibley), who lights the touch paper, but the rivalry between the graduate of the French royal court, the louche French prince taunting his generational counterpart across the Channel. 

It's a strange but lucid rendering of Henry V. We cross the century from Edwardian check to modern army fatigues, blue for the French, khaki for the British but this fight ain't no fashion parade. 

Harry on the spot orders summary executions: a conspirator, Lord Scroop (Phil Cheadle), planning to dislodge him; a former drinking partner, Bardolph (Bobby Delaney), for looting a French church and he gives the nod to the cutting of French prisoners of war throats. 

The famous St Crispin's Day speech uttered on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt turns from the rousing of the crowd to the singling out of one recalcitrant to be persuaded to turn back to fight. Yes, it's a plea, yes it has a sense of urgency. 

But it also curiously chimes with the age of the blog and the astute piece of internet propaganda which feels as if it's tailored to the individual. King Henry V has for many always been a play with a double voice, patriotic and heroic yet cynical and angry about the expediency, brutality and waste of life by war. Now Hastie's production has added the finely honed psychology of the web age. 

Lanky Princess Katherine (Ben Wiggins) is more noticeably at first in drag but her learning of English has real comic verve, with surely a leaf taken, in reverse, from Betty Comden and Adolph Green's French Lesson . And her final appearance is suitably regal, spikey crown on her head as she towers over the rest of the cast with an echo of an American icon.

This is a production with a mix of strong performances from Terry, Cornwell, Bhat, Catrin Aaron as Captain Fluellen and Philip Arditti as Pistol,  full of striking images and precision within self-contained scenes. But it sometimes does feel rather like a curate's egg, more resonant in its parts than as a whole. 

Maybe poet Rupert Brooke, often dismissed as a misguided jingoist, was craftier than is sometimes acknowledged when he chose the cadences of Henry V in his idealized view of England and soldiery in his war poetry. The point between what the soldier king would be and what he is isn't always found in this production but it's an amber/green light for cold metal amidst the lush park greenery.  

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