The set of Henry V is intriguing. Designer Lily Arnold has created a space that feels like a hospital combined with a recording studio or radio station. Old-fashioned stand up microphones mix with massive over-head lights that look as though they have been lifted from a surgical theatre. Lines drawn on the wall could either be heartbeats or a recording of someone’s voice, or both at the same time. It is a space full of possibilities.
Oddly, and unfortunately, the show itself doesn’t really engage with these possibilities. At the beginning, it’s very much Netflix Shakespeare: sharp suits and quick talkers, standing and pacing around with coffees in hand. However the production doesn’t achieve the fluidity or ease that can make this a helpful and interesting approach to Shakespeare – the place where, just like many a TV political drama, it doesn’t matter that you don’t really understand the jargon the cast are speaking because you are so swept along in the sense of urgency and importance.
I am a big fan of productions playing with Shakespeare’s text and Henry V does – making lines sarcastic, changing characters. Some of these moments work very well, and at their best they disappear into the flow of the play, but for much of it both these and more mundane decisions (blocking, character’s emotions) feel telegraphed out to the audience, as if we can see the notes jotted down in the margins of scripts on the stage in front of us.
The place these decisions work most consistently is the Court of France. The first time the action moves to the characters in Act One the whole piece is invigorated. This is helped by the fact the costumes (also designed by Arnold) in these scenes are the best in the play (with the possible exception of a truly exceptional bright green suit worn by Bardolf). While there is a sense of the cliché of cool Europeans – turtle necks and tattoos and pastel pink suits – the aesthetic feels cohesive and exciting, a glimpse into a world very different than that of Henry and his advisors.
The French court scenes are also where the text is played with the most, with Katherine and the Dauphin rolled into one, female, character. This leads to many intriguing threads and moments throughout the play – the loving relationship between the nervy King of France and his brash daughter, her change from pre-battle vanity to post-battle sorrow, the fact that she becomes something to trade in the peace treaty for the war that she played a major part in starting. I felt excited whenever she came on stage.
One of the reasons this works so well is thanks to the fantastic performance by Heledd Gwyen, the stand out star of the show, who manages to make the character likeable without dampening any of the Dauphin’s trademark grating vanity. In the character of Katherine the production stakes its claim to what it is doing and sticks with it – sadly, in a way that isn’t demonstrated in many other aspects of the performance.
Henry V is on until 21 July 2018 at the Ustinov Studio. Click here for more details.