A Shakespeare’s Globe & Headlong Theatre Production
February 28 – March 4 2023
Shakespeare’s play of both European and civil unrest plus an unequal war between England and France is billed as ‘unnervingly relevant’ in the context of current times. However, arguably, it’s been relevant ever since Shakespeare wrote it in 1599. ‘Plus ça change’ as the both the French and the English might say. Having seen this play many times over the years – it’s staged a lot – each production I’ve witnessed has been totally different from the last, with interpretations which were on occasion slightly bizarre and – to me – a little out of kilter, (although one of the most memorable productions I’ve witnessed was with an all female cast). Having said that, the fact remains that after more than 500 years since Shakespeare’s works were first produced, almost all of them are still available at some time every year for us to enjoy – or not…..
Headlong are well-known for their innovative modern productions, so it is no surprise that this interpretation of Henry V is a very 21st century stripped down, energetic and non-traditional version. Once again, the main cast – with the exception of Henry – play at least two parts, and sometimes three. As there is a minimal amount of costume change, just a jacket off or on here and there, it can sometimes confuse, but we should know that this is where Headlong always shine, the actors never fail to demonstrate their talent at switching between roles with consummate ease. Not easy when you’re handling Shakespeare’s complex language and lengthy speeches.
This latest production comes straight from The Globe and it is certainly a pretty significant treat for the play to come to Worthing’s Connaught Theatre for four days, and being assured of pretty good audience levels. (They also staged Headlong’s ‘Jitney’ last summer to great acclaim). It rides on the back of the coat tails of the National Theatre’s version with Kit Harington earlier this year, which was a very different version from Headlong’s. But I guess that just confirms how variously this play is presented.
Scene 1 opens with Henry IV (played by Helena Lymbery) dying and his young son taking the crown after suffering a less than happy relationship with his father. Henry V (Oliver Johnstone) quite brilliantly runs the gamut of emotions throughout the play, the role having the most lines in any of Shakespeare’s works, which is also one of the longest. He is to be congratulated on his performance. Henry’s demonstration of love for his country, his determination to take his unequal army to battle at Agincourt in a bid to lay claim to French land he had been informed was rightfully English, enabled Johnstone to show us just what he can give an audience. Henry sustained heavy losses, even though the English triumphed, murder and mayhem prevailing throughout. Occasionally in these cases it was a little tricky to keep track of actors switching roles, especially when one of the characters came to a sticky end, later to be resurrected as someone else ….
Headlong’s play contained elements which were blackly comic – the humiliating ‘tennis ball’ episode in the opening scene was very funny, but this was in fact one of the most intensely provocative moves from the French which incensed Henry, and put him firmly on the warpath. The familiar soldiers from Henry IV’s time make further appearances here : Bardolph (Jon Furlong) and Pistol (Dharmesh Patel) both provide strong performances, as does Joshua Griffin as Fluellen, although I would have enjoyed the sight of him forcing Pistol to eat an actual leek for making fun of the Welsh, perhaps especially as the play was also being performed on March 1, St David’s Day. Now, that would have been even funnier!
The main theme of Henry V has long been considered to centre around a bloody battle, however it also demonstrates the patriotism and failings of a new king who is eager to ‘make his mark’ and exercise control over his own people, at the same time seizing power over France. Many of us will very likely associate Henry’s rousing battle cry at Harfleur of ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends’, with Henry at the head of his troops preparing to charge. Instead, here it is delivered by Oliver Johnstone as a moving soliloquy, with conflicting emotions, ending with ‘Cry God for Harry ….’ not as a rallying cry but almost despairingly.
Headlong’s production has interpreted many aspects of the original text in an alternative and innovative fashion, at times veering away from Shakespeare’s tale, instead concentrating on Henry’s woeful lack of emotional control and his struggle with his violent nature, and here we can see Shakespeare’s oft used tool of the ‘sins of the father’ syndrome.
There is much to enjoy about this play, not least the awkward wooing of the French Princess Katherine (Joséphine Callies) and her – initial – fiery rebuff, which was great fun. I also enjoyed various members of the cast announcing the Act and Scene numbers – it helped a lot!. However, I can’t say that I was a fan of the initial pastel green ruched curtain backdrop and matching plastic chairs, it feels a bit as if we are in a rehearsal room, aided by the fact that the actors are all in very informal modern clothing, not a hint of chainmail in sight. These are just picky details though.
If you are a Shakespeare purist, be prepared to think outside the box; forget the Kenneth Branagh film and all the other productions you’ve seen before and since – this one will surprise and shock you and deliver a very modern ending which succeeds in underlining some of the contemporary hypocrisy of modern bureaucracy. If you’ve not seen the play before, I’d recommend reading a synopsis first and then open your mind to a startlingly original interpretation!
Reviewer: Gill Ranson
2.5 hours including interval
7 performances at the Connaught Worthing then touring