It is possible that, whether the nation is united or divided, anytime is a good time to perform Henry V. That said, there has not been a more apt time, in this century, to stage Shakespeare’s play about nationhood, leadership and war. It imagines a united country as a force which, although adversarial at times, is a thing worth savouring. Thus, the Tobacco Factory has done a smart thing in making us confront such.
Elizabeth Freestone’s Henry V was nearly brilliant. The play begins amid the end of an office party, with the newly crowned king asleep on the floor. His attendant lords – all trimly suited – wake him with ruminations on how best to profit from an unsuspecting France. As ring-binders and sharpies are waved about the brilliant innuendo was clear – think Brexit/general election. As Ben Hall said in our recent interview:
However, as with all ‘modernisations’ of Shakespeare, just as something is gained, something is irrevocably lost. Here, it was a sense of power, and this is where Ben Hall’s (King Henry) problems began. He struggled to take his King beyond the embattled middle manager of that first scene. Despite many efforts on his part – and Henry is perhaps the hardest Shakespearian King to play – he lacked the sensitivity for this role. Flitting too readily between dithers and denouncements, he reminded me of a fourth-round contestant on The Apprentice. And with a king lacking eloquence, the play was, from the off, hard up against it.
The ‘unsavouries’, however, fared a little better. Rosie Armstrong strutted about convincingly as the up-to-no-good Bardolph, Zachary Powell played a suitably unhinged and drunken Nym, and Chris Donnelly was the sympathetic Rabelaisian figure we needed as Pistol. Although they all took to shouting too quickly – a problem with the whole cast – their exchanges at least gave depth to each character. This was no more evident than when, after Bardolph was executed, the presence of sympathy on their part far outweighed the king’s moral turmoil, of which we should have been most acutely aware.
The real applause, ironically enough, must go to those in the French court. Alan Coveney, as the King of France, struck a wonderfully tragic figure as he watched the downfall of his precious kingdom. Amy Rockson, playing Montjoy, brought a much-needed sense of class to the courtly scenes. Heledd Gwynn, however, was the best of that lot as a savvy and strong amalgamation of princess and dauphin. Gwynn was the punk-rocker of the play, shining out from both her defeatist comrades and the feeble English. However, it did often feel that this creative casting twist was the only victory in what was, on the whole, a jittery production.
This is only the first night of its Lancaster run. As such, there is time to improve for what will surely be a busy weekend for the team at the Tobacco Factory. I saw the director scribbling notes throughout, so maybe she plans to temper this nervy crew into something worthwhile by Friday. She could start by directing her actors to revolve a bit more as they seemed unaware they were now performing in the round. She could also begin with telling Joanne Howarth, who plays the guiding Chorus, not to change a thing as she was a calming and nurturing force on stage. I hope they get it right soon, and I urge you to go and see the results for yourself as this is still a good effort by a passionate group of thespians.