Initially I was going to write separate, full reviews for both of these – however, as I’ve left it a little while since watching Henry V and both of them are closing fairly soon I took the executive decision to clump them together here instead. Other than the fact that they are both Shakespeare plays (and written not too far apart), this is about the only way these two particular productions can be grouped, as they are pretty contrasting characters…
Henry V, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Famously used as a wartime morale booster, this production of Henry V takes that idea of play as patriotism and channels the current worrying trend for nationalism to give a different view of the usually heroic mediaeval king. Though I’m not sure I totally buy Moi Tran’s explanation for the set design (the contrast of green & industrial to represent the effect of colonising would have more clout if the English weren’t essentially depicted as the underdogs in this play), its simplicity is at least visually striking.
This is a co-production with Headlong (directed by their AD, Holly Race Roughan) and is touring following its run in the SWP, but it would have been nice if the blocking for this stint took into account the slightly more unusual setup of the Jacobean-style auditorium; a lot of action takes place at the extreme edges of the stage, which doesn’t make it at all easy to watch from the pit.
Other than Oliver Johnstone in the title role, everyone in the company plays at least two (if not more) parts – it’s clear when they’ve switched character, thanks to some brilliant performances, but as there are few visual cues it’s not always obvious who that character is (especially with the edits made to the play in this version). Those changes will split hardcore Shakespeare fans; it’s really interesting that they’ve moved Katherine’s English lesson to after the marriage ‘proposal’ as it really changes the tone (and actually means it makes a little more sense), but I do miss the usual prologue (“O for a muse of fire…”) – especially as bits of the Chorus’ part pop up later. It’s useful to include some of Henry IV part 2 as a different prologue, however, as it provides insight into the kind of upbringing Henry has had.
This then leads into Johnstone’s portrayal of the usually chivalric king, who here has a bit of an anger management problem: once he gets the taste for blood, he just can’t seem to stop himself. He’s borderline psychopathic and downright chilling – made all the more so by an unsettlingly vociferous reaction from the audience that I was part of, laughing violently as Henry taunts a dead rival.
My verdict? Henry V as you’ve never seen it before – chilling, nationalistic, and utterly disturbing.
Henry V runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 4 February 2023. Tickets are available online or from the box office.
As You Like It, @sohoplace ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Following her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing in 2021, Rose Ayling-Ellis has led the way for Deaf people in the UK – first being part of a campaign to recognise BSL as an official language, and now taking on Shakespeare in Josie Rourke’s production of As You Like It at the new West End venue @sohoplace.
I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when Ayling-Ellis was announced as Celia rather than a different character, as this follows directly on from the Globe’s 2018 production of the same play where Nadia Nadarajah took on the same role. Unsurprisingly, large chunks of the productions cross over, though in this new one more of the characters seem versed in sign language – and closed captions are provided for the audience to follow along (though you often have to choose whether to read those or make the most of watching the BSL interpretation of the lines). Ayling-Ellis’ signing flows into a dynamic physicality, and she is adept at mining this for comedy.
The production runs with the play’s explorations of gender in its casting, though one of my favourite moments comes right at the end when Rosalind (as Ganymede) is promising marriage for Phoebe, Silvius & Orlando – rather than having to re-don her feminine clothing, both her father and Orlando finally see her for who she really is and recognise her in her disguise. This both subverts the expectations of how a woman should be dressing, and also hints at Rosalind carving out her own identity. Leah Harvey is excellent here, particularly seeing the joy slowly creep over their face as realisation dawns on Rosalind.
I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house, as it’s set up in the round, with good raking and minimal set & props to get in the way. Rob Jones’ design is beautiful, with just the subtlest of changes moving us from court to the Forest of Arden – and Michael Bruce onstage at the piano performing his own compositions throughout.
My verdict? An As You Like It for our times – quietly revolutionary, and boldly entertaining.
As You Like It runs at @sohoplace until 28 January 2023. Tickets are available online.