“the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential”
Lockdown appears to be easing in many walks of life, but it is unfortunate that the theatre world, in particular, is still struggling to get back on its feet. The government announcement allowing indoor events is very welcome although there is still a fair bit of ground to cover. In the meantime, open-air theatre is stealing the spotlight, and a very fine example of this is the Maltings Open Air Theatre Festival, set in the unique Roman Theatre of Verulamium just on the edge of St Albans. As part of the festival, Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is running in rep throughout August.
Whilst our theatres are nursing their wounds from the battle against the pandemic, outdoor theatre has another foe, too, in the English weather; and “Henry V” opened just as the heavens did. But mercifully the downpours showed some restraint for the crucial ninety minutes and rain didn’t stop play: the show must go on, and the true spirit of the cast thrives, matching the trumpet calls that herald Shakespeare’s historical text.
“Henry V” is an ambitious play. It is difficult to represent the great battles of Harfleur and, more importantly, of Agincourt. It relies heavily on the collective imagination of the audience, and here it is aided too by the individual imagination of director, Matthew Parker. Embracing the current restrictions, Parker presents the play as a rehearsal for a school production. The teachers and students have gathered together in the summer holidays to rework their production of “Henry V” that was presumably curtailed earlier in the school year. They have to alter the staging to make it socially distant and safe. Costumes can only be touched by the actor wearing them and no-one can share a prop – each cast member assigned different coloured tape to enforce this. The action is interrupted whenever actors get too close to each other. It is a clever way if incorporating the regulations into the performance itself.
The cast brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the classroom in recess where familiarity and authority have license to flirt with one another. The flipside, however, is that one is drawn to these characters more than to the Shakespearian characters they are portraying, and Shakespeare’s text plays second fiddle. The complexities of the subject, and the contrasting views on patriotism and warfare, do get swept aside by the occasional over-projection and caricature. Nevertheless, the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential. Felipe Pacheco and James Keningale stand out, playing seven or so characters between them; and Rachel Fenwick shines as the French King’s daughter, Katherine, especially during the iconic scene in which she attempts to improve her English.
But all in all, it is an ensemble piece that is refreshingly pacey and fizzes with energy. The electricity that seems to crackle form the stage is not just the early signs of the impending thunderstorm. The setting is stunning: an excavated Roman amphitheatre that is nearly two thousand years old. For over a millennia it was buried, but it lives to see the light of day. A fitting backdrop for one of the first productions to emerge since lockdown. The spirit of theatre cannot be dampened – by an invisible enemy nor by the English weather, and this feisty production of Henry V is testament to that spirit.
“Aaron Sidwell is a terrific Henry for our times, and moves deftly between his different incarnations”
The Barn’s Henry V, which ran for a month in 2019, was both a critical and commercial success. The production played to packed houses and added to that theatre’s growing reputation, which led to the Best Fringe Theatre Award at last year’s Stage awards. Now sadly dark, along with all the UK’s other theatres, The Barn live-streamed the production at 6pm last night, in honour of World Theatre Day, and to keep their own flame alive.
Henry V is not an easy play to stage. The action is choppy, and it is blessed and cursed with some of the most famous speeches of the Shakespearean canon. Not only have those speeches been given by some of the titans of theatrical history, but they have also been co-opted time and time again to serve patriotic fervour, for good or ill; most recently by Tommy Robinson and his band of thugs in the Brexit war, which is, of course, the political landscape that this production came out of, and which Hal Chambers (director) quite rightly references. Benjamin Collins’ terrific video projection work makes this quite clear, as does the staging of the political meetings: leaders behind podiums, turning on the charm for the press. The contemporary references don’t stop there; Harry himself is compared to our own Prince Harry – the party prince – and the extended rave montage at the play’s opening firmly situates him in the world of clubs and cocaine, showing the distance he has to travel to be taken seriously as a monarch. The sequence could arguably have been shorter, but the point is well made.
Aaron Sidwell is a terrific Henry for our times, and moves deftly between his different incarnations – monarch, soldier, politician – all the while displaying a charming eagerness to do the right thing. This is a Henry who cares, so very much, about his country and his countrymen, and watching the profound weight of that leadership grow within him as the play progresses is one of the pleasures of this performance, and this production. He is supported by a committed and talented cast, whose energy fills the stage to such an extent that it’s hard to credit that there are only eight of them all told. Special mention here to Adam Sopp (Pistol/Constable) and Lauren Samuels (Katherine/Boy) each of whom light up the stage with utterly connected, truthful performances. Pistol’s final breakdown is truly heartbreaking, and Samuels’ physical and emotional embodiment of two such different characters a testament to serious theatrical skill.
The battle scenes are tremendous. Expertly choreographed chaos with bone-chilling moments of explosive violence. Credit to Christos Dante (fight director) and Kate Webster (movement director) here, two members of an exceptionally talented production team, also including Harry Smith, whose original compositions provide the soundtrack. Although there are moments in which an underscore seems surplus to requirements, the music is for the most part used effectively throughout, and is the sonic realisation of the brilliantly-used industrial scaffolding set design.
It is impossible to watch this production without feeling what is missing. And it is as well to be reminded of the irreplaceable electricity of live performance. Filmed theatre is a strange phenomenon; akin to caging a tiger. Zoos have their place, of course, but living, breathing creatures need to be free.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Eve Dunlop
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