Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Henry V - Band of Brothers (and Sisters)

Henry V, Summer Shakespeare
Studio 77 Amphitheatre, February 13-28

I must admit I approached the Summer Shakespeare production of Henry V with some trepidation. It is a fantastic work focussing on grand themes such as leadership and patriotism, which are frequently mocked (particularly English patriotism) in modern society. These fears were quickly dispelled, however, as director David Lawrence remains true to the passion of the play. The serious moments are tender and touching yet also stirring and powerful. There was a lump in my throat at some of the more celebrated speeches, which was entirely due to the force of direction and acting.

Lawrence ensures that all his cast flesh out their roles and from the entrance of the Archbishop of Canterbury (David Goldthorpe) and the Bishop of Ely (played with relish by James Barber) I was enthralled. Goldthorpe’s interpretation of Salic Law (which Shakespeare’s original audience would have known) to justify Henry’s claim to the French throne is expertly handled. I’m not sure if we are enlightened by the explanation, but we are certainly entertained. The cross-clutching, bible-bashing (literally) duo does a sterling job of illuminating the hazier parts of the script.

Alex Grieg as the eponymous king is fantastic. When hesitant at asking ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim’ or anguished at his betrayal by his old friends he is convincingly human. His lament that he cannot be like other men although he is the same ‘save ceremony’ is heartfelt, his prayer before the battle of Agincourt is profoundly moving, and his wooing of Katherine is utterly delightful. His flashes of temper, remorse and insecurity make him a beloved figure.

Henry is the sort of king who demands respect, loyalty and devotion. His battle speeches are formidable and he shows his leadership in myriad ways – granting mercy where it is due – yet he is not afraid to strike through the hearts of the ‘nest of hollow bosoms’. He forgives drunkenness but not treason. Greig embodies the king versus man dichotomy brilliantly when he personally has an old drinking buddy killed for disobeying orders, and he is fierce in his protection and respect of the defeated French, ‘for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner’.

But, men being as they are, not all support the king. When he prowls the camp in disguise the night before the battle in the ‘little touch of Harry in the night’ scene, he learns there are those who question his motives. Daniel Watterson as Michael Williams speaks his dissent with eloquence and bitterness. With his supposition that as the men are following the orders of the king so all death and blame will be on his head, the situation in Iraq doesn’t so much spring to mind as bludgeon the brain. While Henry’s reaction is fair and indicative of the equanimous king he will become, there is perhaps little else he can do in the circumstances.

Aside from the main focus on Harry, the ensemble work is also accomplished. The reprobate triumvirate of Nym (Jack O’Donnell), Bardolph (Benyamin Albert), and Pistol (Jackson Coe doing his best Orland-Bloom-as-Will-Turner impersonation) are oddly dressed but generally good value. None of them want to go to war although they do want to bask in its reflected glory, and there is a touching moment when they bid farewell to the excellent Nell Quickly (Ameila Willcox). Her newly-wed-and-nearly-widowed character is stronger and more noble than any of the men she sees off from the shores of Southampton to an unknown fate.

As Nym is slain, Bardolph steals, and Pistol ransacks the bodies on the battlefield, the horrors of war are clearly illustrated in counterpoint to those who claim the play is gloriously bellicose. Boy remarks upon this behaviour with the license of a Shakespearean fool, ‘I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart’. Jessica Aaltonen looks cute in this role but her squeaking of the lines as though she has been ingesting helium makes her often incomprehensible.

On the subject of incomp- rehensible, I know Welsh accents are difficult at the best of times, but Christopher de Sousa Smith as Captain Fluellen sounds more like an Irishman being strangled underwater.

Fortunately he handles the comedy (including the ludicrous leek taunting scene) much better than the accent. The play also features a Scotsman and an Irishman, to show the cultural divisions in the ‘English’ camp, but they are absent from this rendition. Captain Gower is included but Bailey McCormack gets lost in the role beside the more expressive de Sousa Smith.

The French contingent is much better served, with the language excellently delivered. The women are wreathed in blue robes like the Beauxbatons from that other famous Harry of the Potter variety. The French lesson is outstanding as Louise Burston hams it up fabulously as Alice, the princess’ maid and tutor, and Alison Walls is much better as Katherine than the Chorus. Her rapid delivery, flirtatious simpering and jerky mannerisms suit the French princess far more than a pragmatic narrator.

The French men on the eve of battle are cocksure and confident, as they know they have greater numbers than the English forces. The banter between the fiery Dauphin (Alex Rabina) and the larger-than-life Constable (Allan Henry) underlines their arrogance. As they ride off to battle with lances protruding from the sunroof of their vehicle you just know there will be a big fall to follow this pride.

The battle scenes are expertly choreographed by Allan Henry who must have staged just about every fight scene on a Wellington stage over the past few years. There are blood-thirsty priests, savage sword fights and cowardly kickings meted out. At times the men stand around cheering and it is more WWF than Agincourt, and there are Matrix-like moments of humour amidst the gore. But when bodies bestrew the set and Henry confesses ‘I know not if the day be ours or no’, it is easy to understand his confusion.

The French herald, Mountjoy is played by Hannah McKie with an innate understanding of Shakespearean speech and a calm dignity that moved me to tears and shows that there are no real winners in war. Despite the undeniable humour of the wooing, there is a discordant note – history will prove that a defeated nation can never be united with its conqueror.

The large cast use this great little venue soundly, performing to all angles, although there is little they can do about the noise from the aeroplanes. Actors encircle the audience to demonstrate superior force; they flee across bridges to signify defeat; and they lounge on balconies to depict insouciance. The tents on the surrounding grass are probably used to store equipment but they look like an encampment. The car that delivers the French envoy is a good gag, but it would have been more powerful if it were a Peugeot, Citro├źn or a Renault rather than a Mazda with a battered headlight.

There are two things I would question and the first is the costuming. Red for the English and Blue for the French – fair enough (les rosbifs et les bleus) and it helps distinguish between the sides, especially when named characters (Boy and the Dauphin most notably) switch allegiance to swell the ranks. When Henry is alone in red at the French court, the surrounding sea of blue highlights his isolation and the fact that he is out of his depth.

But what’s with the glaringly American baseball caps and the Converse All-Star boots? Is there a subliminal advertising message here, or an oblique reference to the homogenisation of culture? There are also product placements of Coke (the red bottles infiltrate a blue chilly bin) and the Warehouse – which is hardly ubiquitous enough to merit such treatment if so. Why do only the trio of traitors (Cambridge, Northumberland and Masham) wear the archetypically British Doc Martens? Am I reading too much into this, and is it nothing more than an attempt at the Baz Luhrmann treatment? Either way, it doesn’t work.

The other quibble is the casting of women in traditionally male roles. This play has a huge cast and almost no women. Katherine, her maid, the Queen of France, and Nell Quickly are the only ones to be given lines. The rest of the play focuses on the relationships between the groups of men, all of which define different facets of Henry’s character. Mountjoy and Burgundy (Laura Feslier) are examples of how this can work, but none of the other female soldiers ring true.

On the whole this is an excellent production and very difficult to review, as each path leads down a cul-de-sac of revelations. It is a tight ensemble piece, given cohesion by a strong person in the title role. Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier are tough acts to follow, but Alex Greig’s Henry V is equally charismatic and compelling – I feel I would be proud to be among his band of brothers (and sisters).

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