We’re asked to suspend our disbelief and use our imaginations to conjure up the bloody battles that take place in Henry V.
The visceral production by Bristol’s Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, which opened Theatre Royal Bath’s summer season last night, goes further.
It has to. Playing in the theatre’s intimate Ustinov Studio, barely room for a skirmish much less a battle, the ‘wooden O’ has become an iron square and Henry’s battle garb comes straight from Barbour. Very Bath.
STF’s bold and thrilling, modern dress, production, which will be touring this autumn, presents us with a fully formed warrior king rather than the callow and wayward Prince Hal, who caroused his way through Shakespeare’s earlier history plays.
Shaven-headed Ben Hall, in the title role, is unrecognisable from the naive and innocent youth he plays in The Durrells.
There is no romantic hero here. His Henry is fiercely intense, pumped up with testosterone and wild-eyed with, well, with something.
Part of the time he looks traumatised by war, uneasily wearing the crown, at others, savagely brutal, showing no mercy.
Elizabeth Freestone’s pared back production opens with Harry hesitantly entering the auditorium. There is a dais made of iron crates with two microphones centre stage.
Henry climbs up. His fingers are twitching nervously and he looks ill at ease. He approaches the mike but, before he can say anything, as if he wants to say anything at all, all hell breaks loose.
A group of party-goers stagger noisily into the auditorium. Drunken reprobates Bardolph and Nym are celebrating the marriage of their mate, Pistol, to the bawdy Mistress Quickly.
As they leave Harry rips off his royal clothes – actually a rather nice suit and tie – relieving himself, if only momentarily, of his duty, but it is a hollow victory.
Before long he has to shake off a hangover, and listen to his advisors advocate war against France.
Using a clever combination of lights and sound effects the audience goes into battle with the English forces where Hall’s raging and exhausted, soldier king is at the heart of the fighting. He’s dead on his feet.
He’s tearful, and momentarily emotional, when ordering the deaths of prisoners. Desperate Henry doesn’t seem able to last much longer in the field and, indeed, his forces are on the brink of capitulation.
It is a particularly fine performance by the young actor. There’s no histrionics or grandstanding from Henry.
The big, rousing, motivational speeches are delivered realistically, a young soldier-leader, in the battlefield, willing his fellow men to back what seems a hopeless cause.
He captures the modesty and authenticity of our modern day Prince Harry, whose own war record and support of the country’s military personnel, is well documented.
His reaction at learning the cost to England at Agincourt, is heartfelt and genuine. Bloodied but unbowed, he is overcome with sadness and relief.
Heledd Gwynn, whose Katherine here also assumes the role of Dauphin of France, gives a full-blooded turn.
No girlish modesty for this French princess. She’s feisty and unyielding.
Shaven-headed and tattooed, she leads her men into battle against the English and, under Freestone, gives a novel twist to her ad hoc English lesson and reluctant engagement to the conquering king.
There’s no Falstaff in Henry V – he’s dispatched early and never makes it back onto the stage after Henry IV – but his debauchery lives on in Bardolph, Nym and Pistol (Rosie Armstrong, Zachery Powell and Chris Donnelly) who give the play its darkly comic thread.
The lively trio squabble over women, drink and the spoils of war but, when it comes to it their loyalty is unquestionable, both to their king and each other.
Hall and Gwynn have terrific support from the remaining ensemble who swap jackets and sides to flesh out the opposing forces.
Alan Coveney gives good value for money, firstly baffling and misleading the king as the scheming Archbishop of Canterbury before becoming the King of France, and then playing Westmoreland on the battlefield.
And Alice Barclay makes a powerful royal ally as the gender-swapped Exeter.
A bold and exhilarating production that, at a time when Brexit is uppermost in our minds, looks at the dark side of patriotism and nationalism.
Henry V runs in the Ustinov Studio until July 21.
It returns to Bristol (Sept 12 – Oct 6) before touring to Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (Oct 9-13); The Dukes, Lancaster (Oct 16-20); Malvern Theatres (Oct 23-27); Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (Oct 30-Nov 3) and Exeter Northcott Theatre (Nov 6.10).