Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Theatre review: Henry V (Shakespeare's Globe)

Two years ago Dominic Dromgoole directed a pair of Henry IV plays at Shakespeare's Globe that were among the best productions of those plays I've seen, and which made it into my top ten shows of 2010. It was no secret at the time that Jamie Parker, who played Prince Hal, was keen to continue the character's journey as Henry V, and he now gets the chance to show us what kind of king his Hal became. The good news is Parker is a fantastic Henry, his biggest strength the big speeches that he gives a genuinely rousing quality, making this a leader people would plausibly give their lives for. The bad news is that he's giving this performance in a production that gets utterly bogged down in the multiple military campaigns and abortive attempts at diplomacy that make up the play's action.

Prior to opening at the Globe this production toured and this may explain why, unusually for a show from the venue's artistic director, this Henry V rarely makes interesting use of the unique venue's quirks and strengths. Dromgoole's never been one to make massive edits to the text, and with a pretty straightforward telling of the story we're left with the play at its most basic: A very episodic affair that doesn't coalesce here into something we can care that much about. The closest thing to a high concept is casting the Chorus (Brid Brennan) as a servant woman who has to clean up after the men, but since the Chorus' speeches are the most tubthumping of all I'm not sure what point this made.

Parker (who as a Globe regular is also the only one to find a way of bringing the venue's traditional interaction with the audience into his performance) brings an energy to his scenes that's lacking elsewhere. It would be unfair to say things fall apart every time he's absent, as there's a nicely-developed relationship between Matthew Flynn's Gower and Brendan O'Hea's Fluellen, while Olivia Ross and Lisa Stephenson are entertaining as Katherine and Alice in the English lesson scene. Ross also does well opposite Parker in the final scene of disastrously awkward courtship, the soldier-king losing all his previous bravery when faced with a different kind of battle. Unfortunately this scene is preceded by a speech from the Duke of Burgundy which Paul Rider gives an interminably slow, monotonous reading from which all meaning has been leeched out, so by the time we get to the funny courtship we're just desperate for the whole thing to end. Henry V looks to be to 2012 what The Tempest was to 2011, with multiple different productions on each other's heels. I hope one of these upcoming productions reminds me of why I've enjoyed the play in the past, as this sadly isn't going to do it: Jamie Parker gives a barnstorming performance that's frankly better than the dull production around it.

Henry V by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 26th of August at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

8 comments:

  1. Are you taking in Theatre Delicatessen's production? (I'm assuming you're booked in already for Propeller...)

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    1. Yes to Propeller; I had a bad Dream from Theatre Delicatessen a few years back so what with the barrage of Henry Vs this year no, theirs wasn't really high on my list.

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  2. Agreed with your review. Good work from Mr Parker but much of the rest of the production was lazy Globe-by-numbers fare (speaking as something of a Globe devotee here). Of course there's always a crowd-pleasing aspect to productions there, but this one seemed to be deliberately supressing the darker elements of the play that are right there in the text - the removal of the final chorus speech being the most obvious example, but far from the only one.

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    1. Cutting the final Chorus mainly made me glad that it was finally over, although I spent the jig worrying that they might have saved it for after that. As for not playing the darker elements, I wouldn't mind so much if I knew what angle they actually were playing: I've seen and enjoyed both the full-on jingoistic approach, and the more critical "Adrian Lester as Tony Blair" at the National a few years back; this was neither, just a series of things happening one after the other.

      The fact that big Globe fans like you and Emma are the people who most agree with my review kind of confirms my feeling that it's not really using the space itself in the right way either.

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  4. Long time reader and first time commenter. I am so happy to read a review that reflects my point of view. With other reviews heaping lashings of praise on this production I was starting to wonder if I just went into the theatre with the wrong attitude.

    To be fair, I would have found this production at least tolerable if my whole body wasn't still vibrating from seeing the incredible Propeller production 2 days ago. If I hadn't seen that I think I would have found the play dull but entertaining... as it was, I found it to be about as fresh as an old sock and about as creative as season 27 of Only Fools and Horses.

    I has happy to see a female chorus bus quickly disappointed that like the rest of the play, her character was just shades of dull brown in wooly period costume.

    The best scene was, for me... the Katherine and Alice English lesson and even that was intolerably dull compared to Propeller's brilliant bathtub scene or Theatre Delicatessen's excellent 'English lesson in a helicopter'.

    I feel like somebody who has dined on a stale crust after eating duck a l'orange the previous night.

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    1. The official reviews have this weird tendency to heap praise on really stilted "heritage" productions of Shakespeare, and get sniffy about anything with a whiff of an idea behind it - the unwatchable Peter Hall Twelfth Night last year got treated like the second coming by the press but I don't know a "real" person who wasn't bored to tears by it. Not that this Henry V is quite on that level but it's another one where I can't find anyone in real life who enjoyed it as much as the critics claim to.

      I'm saving the Propeller one for next week, exactly a month after I saw this one.

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    2. Thanks for your reply! That's a really interesting observation!

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