It had to happen, I have at last seen a modified version of a Shakespeare play that I actually enjoyed. Although I still feel that, if the Trade Descriptions Act applied to the theatre, saying that what we saw was written by the Bard of Avon would be pushing it to the limits, the way in which this play was presented I found made it very enjoyable, understandable and easily followed.
Having said that, it wasn’t perfect, but very few things in life are. I will get the negatives out of the way first, so that I don’t make the same mistake as the director, Holly Race Roughan, did and leave you disappointed with the ending. So, let’s start at the end then. It is ironic that it was spoiled by ignoring one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’ The play concludes with Henry V marrying Princess Katherine, the daughter of the King and Queen of France and bringing her back to England. To wrap things up she is sitting on a chair when a chap enters from behind the curtain and begins asking her the current questions posed to people seeking citizenship in 2023. To begin with this was hilarious as they are so out of context with the period of the play, and a statement as to how different classes of immigrants are treated. The problem was that there was a seemingly endless stream of them and boredom soon replaced amusement. The scene was rescued by one of the company, dressed in blue caretaker coat, vacuum cleaning round the pair as if to let them know it was time to go home. Sadly he was a tad too late.
Dharmesh Patel as Scroop/Pistol/Montjoy and the Immigration Officer
The cast comprised ten players and each, except for the magnificent Oliver Johnstone as Henry V, played multiple roles. Not only that, but they would be French one moment and British the next, sometimes a quick change of shirt would help, but every entrance needed to be announced by the actor, for instance Dharmesh Patel would appear on stage with the words, ‘Enter Scroop/Pistol/Montjoy,’ so you had to be on the ball or things could get confusing. There also seemed to be an inordinate amount of coughing amongst the audience which didn’t help. Similarly the Act, Scene and Location were announced when changed. A tool which worked well under the circumstances but could be thrown in seemingly at random.
The set, by designer, Moi Tran, was uniformly pale green except for the metallic ‘wall’ at the back of the stage when the curtain was raised. The explanation for the decision was outlined in the programme by the person responsible in one of the most pretentious paragraphs I have ever read. The message it was supposed to convey, it didn’t!
Now for the good stuff – everything else. The End…..
The cast. left to Right: Joséphine Callies, Jon Furlong, Helena Lymbery, Geoffrey Lumb, James Cooney, Eleanor Henderson, Oliver Johnstone, Georgia Frost, Joshua Griffin and Dharmesh Patel
Seriously, I thought that the telling of the story was done with great aplomb and utilised the cast and props, mainly comprising chairs and a tennis ball, superbly. Apart from a bit of a line fluff at the beginning, which seemed to throw everyone, the acting was spot on, both in the delivery of the dialogue and the physicality needed for the action scenes and to facilitate the climbing of the metal construction which acted as the back of the stage.
Never having seen the traditional presentation of this particular play, I was stunned by the parallels with modern life. Before ascending the throne, Prince Harry was a bit of a stirrer, and once he had done so he turned into a kind of Putin figure. He invaded France for no other reason than regions of that country had once been ruled by the English and he wanted them back. There was one scene where he describes in graphic detail the perils which would befall the French should they not surrender, again, most sounded like the atrocities currently being perpetrated in Ukraine.
The play doesn’t cover the whole of Henry V’s reign, just the events leading up to, during, and immediately following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 at which a vastly outnumbered English army defeated the French, inflicting about 6,000 casualties whilst only suffering around 600.
The part which changed my whole perception of what I thought the play was about, i.e. courage and Englishness, was the most famous speech in the piece. Rather than being a shouted rallying cry to his troops, ‘Once more unto the breach’ was delivered by someone trying to convince himself that he was doing the right thing. It began with Henry crouched by the wall and almost whispering the lines until he succeeded in garnering heart and slowly building to a crescendo. I found it even more stirring done in that way.
While it concentrates on the roles that the King of England and the French aristocracy played in the battle, to balance things up there was a subplot concerning four criminals; Pistol, Gym, Bardolph and Boy who see the trip to France as a chance to cash in on the event. As the English played by the rules they didn’t get very far, especially Bardolph, played by Jon Furlong, who was hanged for stealing from a church.
Jon Furlong as Bardolph/Constable of France/Bates
Regular readers will know that I frequently refer to the person who does the signing for d/deaf theatregoers. This evening’s BSL interpreter was somewhat different in that she was not standing in the wings, but was deep in the heart of the action, and in some instances having lines seemingly directed straight to her. She also needed to be a bit nimble to avoid colliding with the actors in the action scenes. It did mean though that anyone reliant on her skills didn’t need to turn away from the stage in order to follow the dialogue.
Finally I would like to mention the cross gender casting of some of the characters. Because of the informal format of the piece and the number of characters needing to be portrayed, it didn’t jar as much as usual, although the audience had to be extra attentive when the characters introduced themselves. One side effect of this was that there was a scene on the battlefield when two soldiers were in a warm embrace whilst lying on the ground and, as one of them was being played by a woman and the other by a man, it turned a gay scene into a straight one, much against the grain of the other Shakespeare ‘adaptations’ I have seen at the Leeds Playhouse recently. How radical to depict heterosexual practices, there is hope for us yet.
Another first is that this is the only play I believe I have ever seen which credits a ‘Candle Consultant’, although there might have been one in Grease.
James Cooney (Prince Thomas/Orléans/Captain Gower) and Eleanor Henderson (Prince Louis/Queen of France/Le Fer/Ambassador 1) in the gay/straight scene.
Henry V is a production by Leeds Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong with Royal & Derogate, Northampton. It runs at Leeds Playhouse until 25th February, 2023 before touring. For more details and to book, please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/henry-v/
Photographs supplied by Leeds Playhouse