Thursday, 19 July 2012

Theatre review: Henry V (Propeller)

Henry V is the Shakespeare that's hard to avoid this year and after a thoroughly disappointing one at the Globe I was optimistic that Propeller would rehabilitate the play for me. Paired with their take on The Winter's Tale, Ed Hall's all-male company tackle one of Shakespeare's most testosterone-fueled plays (its whole story is essentially the progress of one military campaign) and, as you'd expect, don't hold back. Michael Pavelka's design gives us a modern-dress production with much of the cast remaining onstage throughout, a laddish regiment in desert camouflage gear delivering the Chorus' speeches. In keeping with the play's overt theatricality that asks us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, most of the costume changes simply involve the actors pulling on additional clothing over their combat gear.

Hall's production makes this very much the story of a whole army, not just the one man at its head. Not that Dugald Bruce-Lockhart doesn't step up to the plate in the title character's key moments, but his king is more of a thinker and manipulator than a bombastic rabble-rouser. His fondness for shaping the facts to fit what he wants is evident from the opening scene: The bishops' convincing him of his right to France's crown is less about them using their influence for their own purposes, more overtly about Henry using them to justify a campaign he's already set his mind on. Hall brings a lot of deaths that usually happen offstage, like the executions of the conspirators and Bardolph, onstage, never shying away from how ruthless a king Henry can be. Of course Propeller are often described (sometimes in an accusatory way) as having a very laddish approach and this production certainly doesn't skimp on the Kensington Gore; but the violence is presented in a variety of interesting ways, never gleefully.

It's not just the king whose dark side is explored, the regular soldiers' flaws are also looked at - the army are seen as treating the campaign to France as a way of getting cheap booze and fags, bitterly disappointed when Henry bans them from looting, and cheering at the list of French dead as if it's the football score. I don't know if it's a by-product of having to fit roles to the available ensemble but Propeller always seem to make some casting choices that are different to how I've usually seen them. Gary Shelford's somewhat camp wide-boy Bardolph, Ben Allen's country bumpkin Williams, and Dominic Thorburn's doomed Monsieur Le Fer are all a lot younger than I'm used to seeing the roles played, and interesting for it. (Though for the most part the actors' roles are quite evenly spread out over the two plays, Thorburn is a bit underused in both; maybe he's largely relegated to just looking attractive in the background because he's so good at it. I mean just look at him, Dominic Thorburn is clearly more attractive than people who are not Dominic Thorburn.)

Gunnar Cauthery's Dauphin is pure Eurotrash, while the play's funniest scenes are the ones featuring Karl Davies' Katherine and Chris Myles' Alice - not just the famous English lesson scene, here done in Katherine's bath and inevitably featuring a borderline obscene loofah, but also Henry's awkward proposal at the end of the play: The fact that it's another part of the king's machinations is always apparent, but is tempered by Myles' scene-stealing reactions to his terrible French.

Once again I was introducing a newcomer to Propeller, in fact Christopher didn't even know they were an all-male company going in: He did a double-take when I spotted Dominic Tighe, who was in last year's ensemble, in tonight' audience, and told him I'd seen him play Queen Elizabeth in last year's Richard III. But from knowing nothing about them he's now another enthusiastic convert, particularly noticing how well integrated the music was into the play, something he says he often finds awkwardly done in Shakespeare. I suppose it's inevitable that at some point Propeller will disappoint me, but they've not done it yet - bring on 2013 and the Shrew/Twelfth Night combo.

Henry V by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 21st of July at Hampstead Theatre (returns only) then continuing on tour to Galway.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval. (As they do in one of their shows every year, some of the company perform songs in the bar during the interval of Henry V, collecting money for charity.)


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this!! What did you think of Tony Bell's Fluellen? I really enjoyed his representation which I thought brought out the toughness and dignity in the character whilst still being a bit potty (that's just how Fluellen is in my head!).

    1. He was one of the better Fluellens I've seen, although I think the text editing has to take some credit as well. The whole "English/Irish/Scottish/Welsh captains" sub-plot was heavily cut (it can get tiresome) but not so much that it didn't make sense any more, as I've also seen happen before (in the notorious Southwark Playhouse one.)

    2. Yes, good point, I am lucky enough not to have experienced the Southwark Playhouse version!