Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Scott Ellis
Designer: Florence Hazard
Lighting: Christopher Nairne
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Merely Theatre’s approach to Shakespeare is highly inventive, imaginative and very fast. The company’s publicity describes its stripped back productions as having “no gauche sets, frilly collars or fussy props”. True, but on the evidence of Henry V, they do have quite a lot of racing around and shouting very loudly.
Wakefield Theatre Royal comes quite early in an extensive tour of Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Merely Theatre’s idea of dispensing with props and set is hardly new, but the company’s method of gender-blind casting is possibly unique. The parts are grouped together to be played by five actors, then are double cast, each with a male and a female actor, one of whom appears on any particular night. At Wakefield, the resulting cast of three men, two women, with a male Henry V and a female Princess Katherine, was fairly traditional by Merely Theatre’s standards.
Henry V is also stripped back in terms of time. Making the play fit into 90 minutes stage time means cutting out the captains of all nationalities (Gower, Fluellen, Jamy and MacMorris) and severely reducing the nobles and clerics on view, but the economy of time is mainly achieved by the hectic pace. This is much to the credit of Scott Ellis’ meticulously routined production and the energy and concentration of the young cast, but newcomers to the play must find the narrative difficult to follow.
Beginning the Chorus’ opening speech without warning and with the house lights up is a stirring call to arms to the audience and the idea of passing the speech from voice to voice in the auditorium works well, but the initial scenes of the play are just too frantic. Everyone is so excited and no one becomes a character until the first appearance of the ne’er do wells – and they’re pretty excited, too. It’s ingenious to separate English and French by football shirts and makes for instant character changes, but the names on the back are something of an admission of possible audience confusion.
Things settle down, though the pace seldom drops and at times the narrative still lacks clarity. Partly the increased coherence is in the nature of the play: different strands come together on the field of Agincourt. Much of it, however, comes from the growing authority of Luke Barton’s performance as Henry V. His intelligent verse speaking stands out from the hurly-burly and he establishes a real character, a decent public school boy of a king.
His scene with the Princess of France – composed, human, funny, moving – is the highlight of the production, with the very talented, if sometimes over-energetic, Emmy Rose who also makes an impact as the Boy. Tamara Astor overdoes the gruff voice for the male partsbut interacts well with the Princess as Alice, her waiting woman. Robert Myles’ expressive Chorus is the pick of his parts and David Gerits is never knowingly underplayed as a broadly Geordie Pistol.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed