“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” Following hot on the heels of the Globe’s summer production, The Barn Theatre in Cirencester also takes on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays: Henry V. Over the past few years ‘patriotism’ has become something of a watchword, appealing to the far right factions and leaving many others ashamed (or even unable) to take any pride in their country – there aren’t many more apt plays than this one to tackle this particular topic. In an age where the national flag is associated with fascists as much as sports teams, “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George’!” has never appeared so divisive.
Henry IV has just died, leaving his wayward son to become Henry V. The young king is forced to mature quickly, as his advisors push him towards invading France to claim the throne (as the rightful heir); he initially holds back, but a taunt by the Dauphin is a step too far and he sends the ambassador back with a defiant message of war. Henry’s old mates Pistol, Bardolph and Nym prepare to join the ranks, though they have a conflict of their own to work out before they can go anywhere! Once they do all reach France, the English forces claim an early victory at Harfleur – however their depleted ranks threaten the whole enterprise, as the French begin to regroup…
One of the aims that director Hal Chambers had for this production was to highlight its relevance to the present climate, and to engage younger audience members who potentially haven’t had much (if any) exposure to Shakespeare before. As far as I’m concerned there’s a big tick in each of these boxes with this bang up-to-date version of 15th century history. The company warm up onstage with dance music blaring – and the occasional keepie-uppie – before introducing the play, each taking a share of the Chorus’ lines. With the standalone play we don’t have the benefit of some of Henry V’s ‘journey’ to the crown, but here we’re given a brief summary as Henry IV’s funeral takes place and his son blazes the night away with the gang – reminiscent of his present-day namesake. It also raises the interesting question of Henry V’s legacy; he may begin his reign with a famous victory, but at his early death he leaves the country far from “strong and stable” with his infant son in charge and the Wars of the Roses to come. Cirencester residents get a glimpse of their local Ladbrokes when we meet Henry’s old muckers, and one lucky audience member even gets a cameo role if they’re sat in the right/wrong place (I ended up with that dubious honour).
What’s equally as impressive as the realisation of Chambers’ vision is the design of the whole production. Emily Leonard’s design provides a set that’s easily adaptable for each scene, with relatively swift transitions, plus costumes that instantly make it clear who we’re dealing with (be it Henry’s court or the French army) – and if I’m not mistaken, another young royal couple’s look is channelled as Henry & Katharine announce their engagement. Benjamin Collins’ projections add an extra level of refinement to this production, and detail that I hadn’t anticipated; the rolling news sections are a great touch which links everything together perfectly.
The cast of eight are energetic and clearly spoken (vital with some of the wordier scenes), gamely doubling up to ensure a decent chunk of the characters feature. Jonathan Woolf switches between the cocky Dauphin and the spurned Nym, the latter sparring hilariously with Adam Sopp’s bullish Pistol as they banter & grapple for attention from Nell. Lauren Samuels is especially endearing as Boy (a young lad who is almost unwillingly part of this little group), and great comic value as Katharine & Henry attempt to speak to one another. In the lead role, Aaron Sidwell is charismatic & persuasive – you could definitely understand why his troops followed him into a seemingly hopeless fight. His every action is well thought through, and he is incredibly expressive. A Henry V for our times.
My verdict? An exceptionally well conceived production, with a clear focus on storytelling and great visuals – a Henry V for our times.
Henry V runs at The Barn Theatre until 22 June 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.
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