Stripped back history play brings Shakepeare’s Globe and Headlong to Northampton stage
Like this pared back, stark adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the audience was much reduced on Wednesday’s Press Night, due to heavy snowfall.
But those of us who made it were tucked warmly into the Royal, watching the 20-something, newly-anointed King, bruised by his dying father’s distain, wreak havoc across France after being ‘dissed’ – if you will – by the delivery of a tennis ball.
Enraged by Charles VI of France’s apparent slight and determined to become a warrior king and claim France as his birth right, as his dead father had done, Henry invades, and begins a bloody campaign that culminates in the battle of Agincourt. (Read up on your history if you didn’t do Henry V at school, as it gets pretty complicated, with references to English subjugation of the Welsh, who ultimately provided the 500 longbow archers who laid waste to the French bogged down in the muddy battle.)
This lauded production, a collaboration between Shakespeare’s Globe, Headlong and Royal & Derngate, started its creative life at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, essentially the indoors bit of the Globe, which seemed to use chandeliers and candlelight to give the production a switch from light to dark. On the Royal stage, the set is starker, with rows of green chairs facing each other to indicate the French and English, and a ruched green curtain drop alternating with an impressive and effective distressed mirrored backdrop. In Northampton, the chandeliers looked more like suspended light-sabres, which didn’t have quite the same effect.
The company of ten actors share all the parts, and while this is a very ‘male’ play (and on International Women’s Day I did feel a bit exhausted by the angry, entitled violence of it all), the mixed gender cast do a sterling job of keeping the dialogue comprehensible.
However, the adaptation has them in quite possibly the worst collection of ill-fitting chino trousers I’ve ever seen outside Twickenham on a match day.
OK, so there’s no cliched armour, swords or period frocks, but the contemporary clothing just made it more confusing to keep up with the character switches – apart from shrugging off the odd shirt to reveal white ‘wife-beater’ vests during the fighty bits.
Strong among the performances were Georgia Frost (Nym/Rambures/Williams) who brought a fizz of energy to every scene, James Cooney’s subtle side-eyeing which could be detected even several rows back, Joshua Griffin’s frustrated and almost controlled Fluellen and Jon Furlong’s impressive pre-interval death (no spoilers). Emotional performances from Helen Lymbery (Henry IV/Uncle Exeter) and Oliver Johnstone as the titular King must be exhausting.
It’s a lot of story to cram into a couple of hours, and I kind of missed the context of the Pistol/Bardolph/Nym spoils of war link. And I’d have like to have lingered a little longer over the forced marriage/courtly love scene, where the teenaged Princess Katherine (of Valois, she’s buried in Westminster Abbey btw, and would go on to produce the Tudor line) is offloaded by her parents to the King who just slaughtered their citizens.
I’d be surprised if the schools haven’t snapped up the matinees because this production is a total shoo-in for an English or drama essay in future studies, especially with the sharp (and I meant total switcheroo) final scene, which slams us into a present-day immigrant citizenship exam. The roar of laughter from the audience confirmed the direct hit, although Shakespeare purists may not agree.
Henry V runs at Royal & Derngate until Saturday March 18, box office 01604 624811
The performances on Wed 15 March 7.30pm will be Audio Described and will be preceded by a pre-show Touch Tour. All patrons attending the tour should meet at the Box Office at 6.30pm, where a member of staff will then take them into the auditorium. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to book the Touch Tour.
The performance on Thu 16 March 7.30pm will be performed with integrated British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation