Friday, 24 August 2012

Theatre review: Henry V (Old Red Lion)

My third Henry V of the year is at the Old Red Lion, where the same company of six actors from The Revenger's Tragedy are playing it in repertory. With the other two productions I've seen this year going by and large for the sympathetic portrayal of the king, Henry Filloux-Bennett's goes the other way, turning the play into an allegory for the second Iraq war - a leader who believes he's doing god's work, going into war on dubious evidence. This is far from a new approach - Adrian Lester was a Blairite Henry back in 2003. The explanation given for revisiting the conceit is that we now have a better knowledge of what went on behind the scenes. Still, a Labour-bashing production in 2012 does feel a bit like flogging a dead horse; at least Cameron and Clegg get a last-minute dig as the Epilogue's men who "made his England bleed."

Filloux-Bennett's take on the play could justifiably be called an adaptation of Shakespeare's work, because while ultimately staying faithful to the overall shape and mood, he's made major cuts and shuffled various lines and characters around to aid his high concept and enable scenes such as American troops torturing hooded prisoners while taking cameraphone pictures. The most obvious change is in dividing up the title role into two new characters: Jack Morris as a very pointedly Blair-like politician, the public face and the man who gives the orders; and a general who acts as a military adviser at first, then gets his hands dirty in the actual campaign, played by Mark Field (who doesn't look entirely unlike another of this summer's Henries.)

The conceit is actually very well thought-out and executed. Politician Harry gets to do (a highly rehearsed and spin-doctored) "Once more unto the breach," Soldier Harry a more spontaneous St Crispin's Day speech. I wasn't convinced by Morris in The Revenger's Tragedy and I'm still not here - his Tony Blair impression gets the mannerisms down very well, but his often nasal delivery does mangle the speeches somewhat. Field impresses more with a performance weighed down by actually having to face the consequences of his actions on a daily basis - admittedly he's been given the meatier of the two halves of Henry, giving scope for more nuance: His is also the only one of the two to show regret at the death of Falstaff, which is here announced via a rolling news report on the TV screens.

If there's a main problem with Filloux-Bennett's production it's that having used two actors for the lead and left himself with an ensemble of only four to cover all the other roles, even with many of those roles cut the amount of doubling becomes a difficult juggling act. It's a shame because in all other respects this is a brilliantly fast-paced production, but the scene transitions are clumsily done and often involve the action just coming to an abrupt halt. The worst instance is when we have to listen to the whole of a horribly overblown rendition of the US National Anthem over footage of Blair with Bush - half an hour into the show, the association is one even the stupidest audience member would surely have made for himself, and the point of US involvement is made perfectly well by turning Exeter and Fluellen into Americans (the latter change possibly risking the ire of any Welsh audience members.) I strongly suspect the entire thing is meant to cover a costume change, but it feels like painfully labouring a point and stops the show dead. (There's also an interval which could and should have been ditched, but given the amount of unnecessary intervals I've seen at this theatre I suspect the pub downstairs demands them.)

Christine Oram also has her work cut out for her trying to get the Chorus' apologies for not being able to show the full action make sense, since the genuine footage of Iraq on the TV screens does just that. But these niggles aside it's well worth catching this Henry V, especially if you're familiar with the play and want to see a different take on it. The cast is generally strong - Henry Regan (also not the ugliest man alive) does one of the best jobs I've seen of making the convoluted case for Henry's right to the French crown (presented here, of course, via a series of dossiers) funny rather than tedious, and there's a lot of nice detail in making the performances suit this cynical interpretation of the character - I liked Morris' Henry snapping at a lackey, right at the point of rehearsing the bit in his speech about how even the basest has "noble lustre in your eyes."

Henry V by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 29th of September at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including interval.

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