'Henry the Fifth' review or 'There'll be tears at bedtime!'

'Henry the Fifth', William Shakespeare/Ignace Cornelissen
Unicorn Theatre, 22nd May 2015 

In all the time I studied Shakespeare at school, and later at University, I’m not sure I ever laughed spontaneously at a ‘joke’. But in this lovely, lucid version of ‘Henry the Fifth’ the young audience chuckle – genuinely chuckle – when Henry quips following the King of France’s death, ‘The worms will feast royally tonight!’ They also gasp, cheer and heckle. At one point, I heard a kid cry out: ‘I never saw that coming!’ It is such a pleasure, a privilege – and a revelation – to see children connect with Shakespeare like this.

Shakespeare’s epic war-play has been cut down to just one hour but – make no mistake – this is not a simplified version of ‘Henry V’. Instead, this is a beautifully condensed (such clever work from writer Ignace Cornelissen and her translator Purni Morell) and visually ingenious version of Shakespeare’s robust classic. All the words, ideas, characters and moments of quiet reflection and pumped up brutality are in here – it’s just that they have been carefully and completely written into the set, the stage action and a few select but sparkling characters.

The hero of our tale – and what a grubby and recognisable hero he is – is a surly young Henry V (Alex Austin). Austin (along with the rest of the cast) wears modern dress – jeans and a worn out red leather jacket – and just one select prop (his bloodied crown). He looks like an everyday geezer after a heavy night out; he is grumpy, moody and just a little bit dim. He declares the French King a ‘ninkinpoop’ and, after a restless night, declares: ‘There will be war.’ This is a King of the people, for better or worse, and the kids – all of us - love him for it.

Alex Austin draws the children in but director Ellen McDougall and designer James Button finish the job with singular panache.  The stage world is one the children recognise and understand but also one that chimes brilliantly with Shakespeare’s central themes. Much of the action unfolds on a raised sand-box, which is filled with mini sandcastles and one magnificent central creation.  As the war between England and France progresses, this sandcastle is gradually chipped away at – until it all but disappears. It’s a brilliantly accessible image, which conveys the pointless destruction of war, the base and childish tendencies that often initiate such conflict and the horrible ease with which a new ‘castle’ is built, only for the fighting to begin all over again.

McDougall does not shy away from the violence that burns through ‘Henry V’ but she frames it in such a way that the kids are not frightened – or alienated – but utterly engaged. The battles – so often formal and stiff and downright boring affairs – are bloody good fun. Floating blue helium balloons represent France’s army and floating red balloons, England. When the balloons are burst, the children scream – and I mean really scream. When Henry’s army is deflated, the air is quietly let out of one solitary balloon – and boy does it look a sorry sight. And when the battle proper kicks off, the King of France (John Biddle – deliciously devilish) and King Henry fight it out with spades, axes and anything else they can get their hands on. They scamper about that sandbox with all the energy they can muster and it is a messy, chaotic and wonderfully silly display. Fighting is not grand. Fighting is not choreographed. It is slapdash and bonkers and, at its heart, really just a squabble between two little boys. The kids practically take off from their seats and spontaneous chanting and clapping erupts around me. What better what to express the infectious hysteria – the instinctive rush – of bloody, brutal warfare?

There’s so much visceral pleasure packed into this production – but there are a lot of subtle ideas simmering underneath as well. There’s even a meta-theatrical subplot that is incorporated so completely into the structure of this piece that it doesn’t feel pompously intellectual – it just ‘is’. Katherine of France (a defiant Tanya Lattul) is constantly nudged to the side-lines by Offue Okegbe’s pompous and misogynistic narrator. But as the play progresses, Katherine fights back. At one point, she whips off her dress – and all the repression that costume enforces – and reveals a pair of jeans (all the better to make her escape in.) Later, Katherine shoves the narrator and begins to take control of her story, the children cheering her on. How’s that for an effortless exploration of the oppressive forces at play when it comes to almost all of Shakespeare’s female characters?

All too often Shakespeare productions feel like they are looking up to the gods – towards the great bleeding Bard himself – or anxiously behind them. But this production looks only outwards and the audience – acknowledged and involved with every clever little twist – lose themselves in the moment. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many kids try to reach out to and touch the stage, the props and the actors throughout a production. This show is so vibrant and so seductive that, by the end, the children are not simply watching – they’re living it and longing to jump right inside.


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