Henry the Fifth review

by Stewart Pringle

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★★★★

Shakespeare kicked off his Henry V with a plea to the imaginations of his audience: ‘O for a Muse of fire’, O for ‘a kingdom for a stage’ – forgive us our ‘unworthy scaffold’, our bare and meagre theatre. Ellen McDougall’s production stages the great game of thrones within a literal playground of sandcastles and balloons, and begins with a similar call to fancy from the narrator, urging us to imagine each man as many and the few well chosen childhood props the material of warring nations. Spinning freely away from Shakespeare’s text, snatching at weighty concepts as if they were as light as air, this is a thrilling and fleet-footed interpretation that makes your average ‘grown-up’ production look as dumb and heavy as lead.

Shane Zaza plays Henry as a petulant boy on the cusp of adulthood, looking to fill his coffers with some of France’s wealth. He nips across the channel to play some boule with Princess Katherine (Hannah Boyde) and becomes locked in a bloody war with regal usurper Giles (Rhys Rusbatch). The rest has been stripped back to leave vital questions of the probity of power unencumbered, and to pry new possibilities from the conventions of storybook castle-play.

Ignace Cornelissen masks his adaptation’s conceptual depth and daring with spare and plain language, which makes the occasions in which it pulls back into gruesome detail or profundity all the more exciting. There are enough fart jokes to keep the most discerning child entertained, but there’s no flinching from the physical cost of war or the political implications of a war of vanity or caprice.

Henry the Fifth is not so much brilliantly realised as brilliantly typeset, which extends further than James Button’s typographic realisations of England and France: the concepts are absolutely legible and the incidents are framed and contained with a keen eye for the weight of events and the levity of language. Subtleties that could easily sink beneath the visual whimsy are instead italicised by it, never better than in the war scenes in which rows of floating balloons stand in for armies of troops. When they burst, you flinch, but when Boyd describes the fate of soldiers who die unnoticed on the battlefield by allowing a single red balloon deflate as the play continues, unconcerned, the truth of war is made universally decipherable.

It’s easy for all ages to identify with Zaza’s self-absorbed Henry, but it’s Boyd’s ageless Katherine and Abdul Salis’ narrator who make the strongest impacts. Boyd blends girlish playfulness with strength and cunning, making the Princess a powerful role model as she asks ‘Why do I always have to be a small part in someone else’s story?’, and sparring with Salis in a hilarious game of storytelling one-upmanship.

This scene is the centrepiece of the production, as Katherine pulls the narrator into the peril of the narrative, berating his recalcitrance and insisting: ‘Get over yourself. You’re just as involved as everyone else.’ It’s a vital and nuanced point about the power of authorial voice over the flow of history, and of voices of authority over the actions of the individual. It’s a cautionary message, but also an empowering one, suggesting that the voice of a story-teller has power, whether that voice is as anonymous as an imaginative child’s or as canonical as Shakespeare’s.

Written for Exeunt

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