Lockdown reviews: Henry V

The Barn Theatre in Cirencester is not a venue I have been to in person, so I am happy to be able to go “once more into the breach” in the ultramodern version of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Rather like the Almeida’s version of Richard II last year, the company is small (eight people) and modern dressed. Comprised from a number of performances during the run, this show uses television broadcasts and physical movement to add relevance to the text (written right at the end of the 16th century).

What isn’t clear is how much of the effects we see in the opening scene were visible to a stage audience. There are sound and lightimg cues, text flashing up for seconds and discordant music, which has a cinematic feel, and the camera takes us as deep into the action as we were in the 90s crucifixion of Jesus Christ Superstsr.

Adam Sopp as Pistol in Henry V.
Adam Sopp as Pistol in Henry V.

Henry V has become king following the death of his father, Henry IV (himself the subject of a pair of previous plays in the Bard’s Henriad). He was seen in those plays as a prince who lived for pleasure, but here he has to prove every inch a king. His is not the imperious jingoism of a screen Olivier, but a man with failings.

Directed by Hal Chambers, this interpretation buzzes with energy but keeps the verse intact: a running time of three hours might make casual viewers balk, but it should be fairly straightforward to follow the story, even with a number of cast members playing multiple parts.

Modern Shakespeare can be hit or miss, and no adaptation is “right” or “wrong”. We have seen his work set in Nazi Germany, in musical form, gender-swapped (here, Bardolph is a woman), wrapped in plastic, abridged or cut to ribbons, interpreted in modern vernacular (Teenage Dick), drenched in water, and even done in traditional form.

Alicia Charles, Elin Phillips and Sarah Waddell in Henry V.
Alicia Charles, Elin Phillips and Sarah Waddell in Henry V.

Here, we are clearly in the current moment as tech projects text and figures on the walls, TV pictures flicker, and mobile phones are held aloft. It doesn’t always mix with the plot of this play (and now and again the actors’ words are lost and incomprehensible due to an overload of sounds).

Scenes without the extra distractions work well, e.g. scenes 2 and 3 of Act 2 (the council chamber transposed to an army execution ground, the inn moved to a hospital waiting room), placing the words and performances centre stage. Scene 6 of Act 3, where Henry has to maintain discipline at the cost of a childhood friend, is also strong.

Henry is played by Aaron Sidwell, with Matt Ray Brown (Exeter/Orleans), Alicia Charles (Bardolph/Williams), Elin Phillips (Fluellen), Lauren Samuels (Katherine/Boy), Adam Sopp (Pistol/Constable), Sarah Waddell (Queen of France), and Jonathan Woolf (Nym/Dauphin).

Cast of Henry V.

Emily Leonard’s clever and focused set design is complemented by Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s evocative lighting, with Kate Webster’s movement direction adding an additional dimension to the play. This is a real theatre of war.

It is curious watching a recording that brings a number of performances together and reminds you of the fact with on-screen captions as you watch. I would have preferred to set this aside in a way and immerse myself as if this was one show, captured. However, I was eventually caught up in this production.

The Barn Theatre’s production of Henry V has been made available for free on Facebook, but donations are invited and appreciated. Photo credits: Eve Dunlop.