As readers of this blog might be aware, Ed Hall’s Propeller have been responsible for some of the theatre productions that I’ve cherished the most over the past several years, and I’ve travelled far and wide (well, only as far as Guildford, Oxford and Sheffield, actually) to see their work. (See reviews of The Merchant of Venice here, and Richard III and The Comedy of Errors here, here, and here.) The company’s much anticipated 2011/12 tour finds them revisiting two plays that they’ve previously staged in new, recast productions. First up is Henry V, which opened at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre this week, and which was, in fact, the very first play that Hall and company presented back in 1997. (It’s joined in rep by The Winter’s Tale in the New Year.)
With its opening appeals to the audience’s imagination, Henry V seems, in many ways, the ideal play for Propeller, a company defined in part by its inclusive, participatory approach to Shakespeare’s drama. But for me the new production, while boasting some great moments and wonderful details, doesn’t quite achieve the breathtaking inventiveness and richness of texture that’s distinguished their very best work.
First performed in 1599, Henry V is of course one of the history plays that’s proved most enduring in its appeal, and also one of the most adaptable to different historical moments. And our view of its protagonist has shifted more drastically, perhaps, than that of any other Shakespeare character, with Henry moving in the public imagination from hero to war criminal. Made with the encouragement of the British government, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film played up the play’s rabble-rousing nationalism to create an overt piece of WW2 propaganda that erased any moments in the play that presented Henry negatively. Forty-five years later, Kenneth Branagh’s film approached the play through the prism of Vietnam and the Falklands War, restoring most of the scenes cut by Olivier, but - some critics argued - ultimately endorsing a conservative view of the material that jarred with an apparent “anti-war” stance. Opening in 2003, Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National went full-tilt for Iraq war parallels, with Adrian Lester’s Henry a steely operator who dispatched friend and foe alike with cold efficiency on his route to the conquest of France. In Hytner’s production the orders and threats cut by Olivier weren’t just restored; in a couple of cases, their outcomes were presented on-stage, with Henry himself dispatching his old mucker Bardolph with a bullet to the skull.
Characteristically, Propeller’s approach is less specific and more eccentric than these earlier versions. Hall and his collaborators are masters at creating vivid, often surprising worlds on stage, worlds that work equally as literal spaces and potent metaphors, as their penitentiary-set Merchant and asylum-cum-morgue-set Richard III attested. Michael Pavelka’s design here appears to take the “unworthy scaffold” of the opening Chorus to suggest scaffolding and variously evokes bunker and barracks, parade ground and gym. The opening moments are glorious: the actors, in combat fatigues, take to the stage singing The Pogues's “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” discover a crown in a trunk, launch into the first Chorus, and so begin the play.
Other moments are equally striking, in inimitable Propeller style: the transition to Eastcheap - accomplished with an acoustic singalonga “London Calling” - is superb, while the English-learning scene finds Karl Davies’s wonderful Katherine reclining in a bath-tub as she’s tutored by Chris Myles’s hilariously dead-pan Alice. There seem to be some missed opportunitites for invention, though, while the attempts at Richard III-esque gross-out gore - though justifiable on the grounds of History Play continuity - come off as less effective Richard rehashes rather than dynamic parts of the whole.
Still, the production boasts fine performances from an ensemble made up equally of Propeller newbies and returnees. There’s especially good work from Gunnar Cauthery as a firebrand Dauphin, from Vince Leigh as a vigorous Pistol, and from the expert Robert Hands as Ely and the Constable of France. As a cackling Mistress Quickly Tony Bell - last seen leaving The Comedy of Errors with a sparkler in the sphincter - gets an entrance here that's as memorable as his exit was there; he’s so good that it’s a shame that the part has been cut, and with it, unfortunately, the report of Falstaff’s death and some of the essential context of Henry’s past. (Bell is equally enjoyable as a hearty, leek-brandishing Fluellen, though.)
About Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry I’m somewhat unsure: often the actor falls back on an odd singsongy delivery that feels affected; the eve-of-Agincourt soliloquy is taken a tad too fast for my liking; and the Band of Brothers speech a bit too casually. But he’s strong in the "tennis balls" scene and on “Once more unto the breach,” touching when conveying Henry’s pain at the traitors’ betrayal and expressing his shame about how his father secured the crown, convincingly fervent as a God-botherer, and he proves his comic chops in the closing encounter with Katherine. (Although it might be argued that this scene is stolen by Mr. Myles’s reactions.) Though broadly speaking a sympathetic portrayal, what’s admirable about the performance - and indeed the production - is that it doesn’t editorialise excessively on Henry as either hero or villain but allows a range of colours to emerge.
It’s likely that the weight of extremely high expectations may be responsible for my slight sense of disappointment with Propeller’s Henry V. Nonetheless, the company has produced another entertaining evening here, even if they haven’t come up with an epic vision to equal that of their Richard III for shock and awe.
The production runs for 2 hours 55 minutes, and the interval antics - all in aid of a good cause - are, as usual, priceless. Full touring information on the Propeller website.