28 February 2010

Henry V - Southwark Playhouse, Saturday 27th February 2010

The political situation in England is tense: King Henry IV has died, and his son, the young King Henry V, has just assumed the throne. Several bitter civil wars have left the people of England restless and dissatisfied. Furthermore, in order to gain the respect of the English people and the court, Henry must live down his wild adolescent past, when he used to consort with thieves and drunkards at the Boar’s Head Tavern on the seedy side of London.

Henry lays claim to certain parts of France, based on his distant roots in the French royal family and on a very technical interpretation of ancient land laws. When the  Dauphin of France sends Henry an insulting message in response to these claims, Henry decides to invade France. Supported by the English noblemen and clergy, Henry gathers his troops for war.

Henry’s decision to invade France trickles down to affect the common people he rules. In the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, some of the king’s former friends—whom he rejected when he rose to the throne—prepare to leave their homes and families. Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim are common lowlifes and part-time criminals, on the opposite end of the social spectrum from their royal former companion. As they prepare for the war, they remark on the death of Falstaff, an elderly knight who was once King Henry’s closest friend.

Just before his fleet sets sail, King Henry learns of a conspiracy against his life. The three traitors working for the French beg for mercy, but Henry denies their request. He orders that the trio, which includes a former friend named Scrope, be executed. The English sail for France, where they fight their way across the country. Against incredible odds, they continue to win after conquering the town of Harfleur, where Henry gives an impassioned speech to motivate his soldiers to victory.  As the English advance, Nim and Bardolph are caught looting and are hanged at King Henry’s command.

The climax of the war comes at the famous Battle of Agincourt, at which the English are outnumbered by the French five to one. The night before the battle, King Henry disguises himself as a common soldier and talks to many of the soldiers in his camp, learning who they are and what they think of the great battle in which they have been swept up. When he is by himself, he laments his ever-present responsibilities as king. In the morning, he prays to God and gives a powerful, inspiring speech to his soldiers. Miraculously, the English win the battle, and the proud French must surrender at last. Some time later, peace negotiations are finally worked out: Henry will marry Catherine, the daughter of the French king. Henry’s son will be the king of France, and the marriage will unite the two kingdoms.
Henry - Tom Greaves
Pistol/King Charles/Warwick - Tunji Falana
Canterbury/Gloucester/Fluellen/Orleans - Eric MacLennan
Ely/Nim/Gower/Constable/Burgundy - Michael Bryher
Exeter/Bardolph/Dauphin/Williams - Simon Tierney
Chorus/Catherine - Anna McSweeney
Hostess/Mountjoy/Ambassador/Alice/Governor of Harfleur - Fiona Watson
Creative Team:
Director - Emily Lim
Designer - Chris Gylee
Movement - Leon Smith
Lighting - Christopher Nairn
Sound - Sebastian Willan
Well, hats off to Southwark Playhouse for the most enjoyable production of Shakespeare I have seen in a long time, partly because what is usually a  3 1/2 hour play full of wordy speechifying occasionally enlivened by a bit of showing the Frogs what for is condensed here into a taut 100 minutes or so with all the essentials of the plot present and correct.  Shakespeare does go on so sometimes, to its considerable detriment, but here there simply isn't the time to get bored as scene follows scene with the very minimum of padding.  Everything that is necessary to tell the story crisply and fluently remains, all the great sabre-rattling speeches are there, the vast majority of the play's characters present, the bare bones of the story clad in just enough flesh to make it coherent.  Yet within the skeletonic structure there is time for imaginative imagery and the opportunity for exercising the mind.  Shakespeare knew all about the limitations of theatre 
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
... let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts
...Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
and here imagination has been used to brilliant effect, both to strip away the trappings and to present what remains.  There is no scenery; the play takes place in a large bare room surrounded by benches and high stools for the audience (3/4 of whom become "French" for the duration and the remainder "English", cleverly representing the relative sizes of the two armies). The floor is painted with a huge map depticting the two countries and this becomes the "board" on which the game of war will be contested. A large foam dice and a pile of "Chance Cards" are stacked up in the middle, representing the whims of Fate and Destiny.  The cards are particularly cleverly used - just like their counterparts in Monopoly, they bring messages and give directions which may (or may not) affect the outcome of the "game".  There are no costumes other than knee-length white shorts, tennis shoes and white polo shirts topped off with red or blue tabards depending on the nationality of the actor at any given point.  Helpfully, the name of the character is printed on the back, and you need this to keep track sometimes as there are only 7 people in the cast and all but one play at least four named parts.  Occasionally someone will don a woolly hat or baseball cap; the two opposing Kings wear sweatbands.  Sleeping bags, water pistols, skittles, plastic storage crates and golf flags, all colour-coded blue or red as necessary are the only props used.  On the fields of France, war is a game, and may the best team win.  The walls of Harfleur are blue stacked up plastic crates, knocked over by a siege catapult made of three people, a volleyball and your imagination. The rumbling of the dice across the board becomes the rumble of horses hooves across the battlefields  and the great battle of Agincourt is a heavily stylised, slow motion ten-pin bowling match danced to a rock soundtrack.  I thought it was wonderful; inventive, accessible and an amzing antidote to traditional productions. Something completely fresh and new, and a great way of introducing Shakespeare to a younger audience. 

It wasn't perfect by a long shot - I could have done without a lot of the background music which obscured great chunks of mumbled dialogue.  Even with no music, Tunji Falana was barely audible, and barely comprehensible even when you could hear him.  I would have welcomed a rather more muscular performance in the title role - Tom Greaves' Henry is an awfully likeable chap, keeping all his emotions a little too firmly in check and not giving the great rabble-rousing speeches anything like enough wellie. If the tabards had had the character's names on the back and front it would have helped,  and I certainly could have done with a more comfortable stool.  In retrospect, I think the audience could have been involved more - I would have liked to have waved a French flag or booed the English (note: get there early if you want to be English) but otherwise I had a fun and enlightening time, and certainly won't ever look at Shakespeare in quite the same way again. 

Our audio-visual presentation today is the rousing "St. Crispin's Day" speech from Kenneth Branagh's film version of Henry V.  Its difficult to appreciate Branagh as Henry; I think he bears more than a passing facial resemblance to a young Eddie Izzard and he seems to gurn a lot during this,  but his version makes Olivier's look horribly mannered.  Enjoy!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A really good review! I think we both really appreciated this show. Not perfect, but one of the best incarnations of Shakespeare I've seen in a dogs' age. So sad to see shows so much more technically perfect yet all lacking in spirit. This one really worked!