Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Hal Chambers
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
In a time where everything right now seems to be defined by our relationship with Europe, where we get the leaders we deserve and who then prove unable to lead, there is perhaps something of the comforting in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
The young Prince Hal – depicted in both parts of Henry IV as something of a riotous rebel, content more in merrymaking with Falstaff than in governing – is echoed in the opening moments of director Hal Chambers’s boldly modern setting for the Barn Theatre’s first Shakespearean production. With a video wall flashing images of revelries and front-page tabloid headlines combining with composer Harry Smith’s thrumming electronica, Aaron Sidwell’s young Harry emerges from a reputation as a pill-popping, party-mad prince into a new life as an upright royal.
And it is the opening acts, as the besuited Henry assumes his title and becomes persuaded that now is the time to assume sovereignty over France, that Sidwell is at his most self-assured. Chambers’s modern allegories hold up, too, for all their lack of subtlety: with Harry’s parleys with France taking place under a sky blue flag adorned with yellow stars, the allusions could not be more clear.
But Henry V is not remembered for its visions of bureaucracy, but for the tensions of war. And it is here where that modernity must, by necessity, fall away somewhat: though the uniforms are modern and the weaponry includes guns alongside knives, the language is what really sets the tone.
That, and the violence. King Harry’s new role is underlined with his ruthless execution of a group of conspirators against him, an act which is made all the more shocking by Chambers’ (and fight director Christos Dante’s) use of guns, coupled with subtle projection and lighting cues.
And while no theatre can fully recreate a battle scene — something Shakespeare wisely counsels from the off, with the Chorus admitting that the battles must play out in our imaginations as much as they do on stage – the atmospheric sense of tension as Harry’s forces lay siege to the port of Harfleur play well.
That is in part down to an effective ensemble. With a cast of just eight – a “happy few”, indeed – we nevertheless get the sense of an English army that, while very much outmanned, is capable. Lauren Samuels’s Boy, still very much a page in the medieval tradition (a role which the modern adaptation struggles to make sense of) is chief among a series of well-drawn characterisations.
But much of this is scene setting, the calm before the storm of war. It is only after the interval, as we reach Act IV of Shakespeare’s original structure, that the true battle begins, as we and Harry’s troops march towards Agincourt. And it is here where, as the King is given to extemporise and soliloquise to the audience, that Sidwell loses some of the magisterial authority. Every syllable becomes accompanied by a waving of the arms, as if emoting from the elbow would add gravitas to his speeches. It is as unnecessary as it is distracting, for Sidwell has command enough without such showboating.
The battle itself, making full use of Emily Leonard’s scaffolding-based set, provides for some thrilling showdowns. With so many of the cast having to switch between playing English and French troops, Chambers gives the narrative elements a clarity that such a smaller ensemble needs, and which a larger cast is apt to lose.
It is no fault of this production that the post-Agincourt return to the debating halls feels like such a let-down, and a long drawn out finale to Shakespeare’s history. At least it does afford Sidwell and Samuels (now playing French princess Katherine) to enliven proceedings with some good old-fashioned romantic comedy moments.
Samuels, in particular, having been introduced earlier with a gloriously comic scene, endows Katherine with a glint in the eye that suggests she is far from the prize to be won that Shakespeare’s script could suggest that she is.
It does make one yearn for this couple to take on roles within the Shakespeare canon that could really capitalise on both actors’ comedic abilities. But then, we’d perhaps have been lumbered with yet another adaptation of Twelfth Night, of Much Ado About Nothing or one of the other rather overdone comedies.
Instead, the Barn is to be congratulated for taking a risk on a History as its first venture into Shakespeare. It may not be wholly successful; but, as the Chorus implores in the prologue, it is to be judged kindly.
Continues until June 22 2019 | Image: Eve Dunlop