Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre opened Shakespeare’s jingoistic, war-mongering, anti-Euro thriller, Henry V, on the eve that England decided its future in Europe. Once more unto the breach it rallied its brothers (and sisters) to arms.
You can change a king’s sex, you can dress your players in modern attire, and you can gender swap a Gallic princess, but you can’t get away from the fact that Henry V is a play about thrashing France and keeping them from our shores.
Whether we stay or go Shakespeare’s king, the once carousing wild boy and now an (easily manipulated) soldier-diplomat, stirs, excites and thrills with its battle scenes, patriotic fervour and epic, crowd-pleasing speeches.
Does any other play celebrate the joy of being unashamedly English?
The programme notes suggest that this history play is a satire on patriotism but Robert Hastie’s full-blooded gung-ho production is having none of it.
As the future of England and its sovereignty hangs in the balance is there not a better time to cheer King Harry and view it as an undisputed declaration of independence?
The company comes on stage in modern dress, nay they are in their own dress, probably straight off the bus to Regent’s Park, and we have a Cinderella moment when the crown hunts for just the right head on which to sit.
It comes to rest on Michelle Terry who goes on to prove a remarkable and vitriolic ‘king’. She may bring her feminine wiles to the strategy of war but she is otherwise a neutral gender, and refreshingly so.
Unafraid to lead her men into battle yet compassionate to mourn one of her own that she has just had shot for pilfering.
Terry’s reign begins with hesitation and concern. Her Archbishop of Canterbury wants to stir up a conflict overseas in a bid to deflect his plotting at home. Should she, could she go to war and claim France as her own?
The French Dauphin mocks her audacity – particularly as no woman can hold the throne of France – and he lobs an opening shot over the net, sending the king a chest of tennis balls.
And by George, you don’t mess with Terry’s Harry when she is riled. Her diplomacy gives way to fury as she threatens to trample the French underfoot.
No namby pamby politics of war, she doesn’t hesitate to order the death of prisoners or threaten the pillaging of villages and the slaughter of women and babies.
Alex Bhat’s Dauphin comes across as a bit of an idiot. A braying hooray henry (or should that be Henri?), immature, foppish and a prancing fool but this is Shakespeare’s very partisan interpretation and probably far from reality.
The playwright paints the French as inept (although losing more than 10,000 men to England’s 25 at Agincourt wasn’t their finest achievement) as his audiences would have expected.
Hastie throws in some grand gestures considering that he’s dealing with a bare stage in the middle of a London park. The final great battle scene has echoes of Apocalypse Now as he plays around with smoke, lighting and slo-mo imagery.
Drums beat out a thunderous and savage rhythm, a war chant for the soldiers fighting, and roaring, across the stage, through pools of water that have suddenly appeared on stage from below and the auditorium. It’s very effective.
Sticks, mysteriously pushed into the grass in the wings of the stage, come into their own as grave markers with many adorned with red berets and soldier’s helmets to add to the atmosphere on this field of war.
Michelle Terry deserves to be mentioned in dispatches as a confident and strident leader of men. The big speeches are skilfully delivered with authority and sincerity. When she rallies the troops she directs her rhetoric to one unsure man and it’s all the more powerful for it.
Her technique at wooing Kate needs a bit of polish. She spends the first part behind a desk as though she’s debating a company merger.
But, when she finally approaches her quarry, even her diminutive stature (against a much taller Ben Wiggins) doesn’t crush her confidence. Not the most romantic of proposals but perhaps a modern one.
With a nod to gender equality in the production, the army’s four main captains are all women while Ben Wiggins dons a dress to play a fetching Princess Katherine.
Charlotte Cornwall, as Chorus, stuffs her hands in her pockets and comes on to occasionally narrate and impeach the audience to use their imagination to create images of battlefields, battalions and more.
But there’s little need. It may only be a company of 20 but there seems dozens teeming across the stage.
There is excellent support from David Sibley, who works hard playing an under-pressure King of France, a devious Archbishop of Canterbury and an English nobleman and Phil Cheadle who appears on both sides of the political divide as the traitorous Lord Scroop and France’s Duke of Orleans.
Behind Terry is a talented ensemble playing the country’s dukes and lords, common soldiers and miscreants. The story’s comedy element, the shenanigans of shirkers Pistol, Bardolph and Nym are skilfully handled by Philip Arditti, Bobby Delaney and Beruce Khan with Bardolph’s demise shockingly modern in its execution.
An engrossing, physical and gutsy production. Henry V runs at the Open Air Theatre until July 9.
Michelle Terry delivers a muscular performance in Robert Hastie’s gutsy production of Shakespeare’s Henry V.