DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Henry V – Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, York

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Gemma Fairlie

Costume Designer: Adrian Linford

Set Design: Max Dorey

Composer: Eamonn O’Dwyer

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Henry V was the third of four plays at Shakespeare’s Rose to hold its Press performance, not, as it happened, a Press Night, but a matinee which illustrated one of the charms of Shakespeare at the Rose – and also its most obvious limitation: the natural freedom of afternoon performances open to the skies and the lack of scope for lighting effects.

Shakespeare’s Rose – a re-creation of an Elizabethan theatre – sits in a “village” (food, drink, a souvenir shop, a garden, a performance area) in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower. Just as in 2018, the first year, two companies, each of nearly 20 players, perform two plays each. Visiting Shakespeare’s Rose is undeniably a totally pleasant experience.

Henry V, however, offers an experience more frustrating than anything else. It is performed by a capable cast who showed their ability in The Tempest and, sporadically, do so again in this production. It has the major boost of an excellent King Henry. The director has intelligently challenging ideas, yet by the interval, it has managed to puzzle and annoy in equal measure – the second half, to be fair, is better.

Gemma Fairlie’s concept is to “update (Henry’s) image to the contemporary” or, as costume designer Adrian Linford puts it, to “ask what the flag means to us today as a modern society.” That’s asking a lot of a play written over 400 years ago about events 600 years ago – and it doesn’t work. Taking the question of costume, this means that everyone is in contemporary dress except the King who is in chain mail, then turns into Lord Nelson, but with a full complement of eyes and arms, then settles into various forms of battle-dress until he assumes full-dress uniform to accept the submission of France and Princess Katherine. In a production that purports also to examine what it means to be British the most unaccountable decision is to remove the part of Captain Jamy: Shakespeare conscientiously brings in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the “four Captains”, but for Fairlie Scotland falls off the map.

Most of the cast march and scramble around in fatigues or full uniform, except for the French who wear sunglasses and carry tennis racquets while talking in absurd accents to the hysterical delight of some of the audience. Either this is a Pythonesque farce or it’s offensive.

It’s hard to see what is gained in terms of the ambitious concept by having the traitor Sir Thomas Grey imitate Boris Johnson (hysterical laughter again) unless the intention is to put forward the idea that Boris will betray us over Europe which is almost certainly true. The frustration comes from the good moments that survive between the funny voices and the limp inter-reaction: the Chorus as five separate voices, scattered through the stage and yard, one or two convincing performances – Johanne Murdock, ramrod-straight as the military Duke of Exeter, Charlyne Francis, relaxed and aware as the Boy – or the designs for Falstaff’s funeral, with the frustration increasing with the interruption of Flo Wilson’s moving account of Falstaff’s death by a vulgar visual joke.

In the second half, the two great intimate scenes are well played without excess: “Harry Le Roy” visiting the troops before Agincourt and the wooing of Princess Katharine (Charlyne Francis again, with Alexandra Guelff as her lady-in-waiting). There is even a relevant updating in the scene of France’s submission, everyone in their posh gear conducting a television press conference. The second half is generally rather more successful, though the songs are clichés (Swing Low Sweet Chariot is at least well sung in canon) and the actual battle (lots of marching and formation rolling around) is just comical.

Above all, though, most things that are good come from Maggie Bain – and she is very good. Assured from the outset as the King, she paces her performance perfectly and actually gets over some of Fairlie’s concept of modernising the King during the play. Authoritative and human, she gradually accumulates the troubles of the nation, but, as her brow furrows, she projects honesty and retains control until the slaughter of the boys at Agincourt: “I was not angry until this instant”, certainly!

Runs until August 31, 2019 | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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