[An Incomplete Herstory]
They say history is written by the winners, yet Shakespeare, for all the nationalism evoked in Henry V, is conscious of the moral predicament that his hero (if he can be called that) faces. It’s important, then, where the production stands on the subject. Is this an anti-war narrative, a celebration, a history lesson or something else entirely? War, after all, shouldn’t be dealt with flippantly or romanticised merely because it can be.
The Chorus (Maxine Cunliffe) famously opens the play with a fourth-wall breaking prologue, acknowledging the inherent limitations of the stage, asking the audience to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” While this is sound advice, and performed with poise and elegance, it also serves to highlight the problems with this production. When it comes to staging Shakespeare, the most important thing is clarity. And this is what is ultimately missing in Grae Burton and Natalie Beran’s Henry V.
The simple narrative of King Henry V going to war with the French and defeating them in the Battle of Agincourt is rendered unclear. We know what is happening in the most general sense, but the details are impossible to make out. And the play, subsequently, feels like a patchwork of scenes stitched together rather than the sum of its parts. This isn’t helped by the additional problem—at least from my back-row seat—of insufficient projections versus the PopUp Globe’s daunting size, leaving speeches half-heard and dialogue often muffled. This is undeniably damaging to a play with particularly chunky exposition, numerous historical references and a dizzyingly large cast [EDITOR’S NOTE: I did not experience these issues from the Groundling position].
What’s left is the punk aesthetic of the show; our band of brothers are dressed in leather and decorated with purple rags which double as weapons. While it’s appealing to look at, conveying the requisite toughness, it doesn’t reveal anything about the world of the play. There’s no attempt to recreate the historical setting nor a universe of its own. The result is a play that seems to exist in a vacuum. This might work for the Bard’s more fantastical tales, but the stark and gritty realism of his history plays beg for context or reinvention.
The sole draw of this production lies with its all-female cast of twenty-nine. This traditionally very masculine play, with its military-driven storyline, is nicely subverted through the unconventionality of the performances. Rather than aping masculinity, the cast embrace strength and fury and give it a unique spin of their own. Despite existing as an obstacle for the production to overcome, the excitement of being on stage at the Pop-up Globe is apparent. While the previously mentioned sound issues hinder some of the performances, there’s always the sense that the entire cast is giving their all.
It’s the scenes we don’t usually go to Henry V for that feel the most assured. The smaller, less essential moments. Pistol (Genevieve McClean) being force fed leeks by Fluellen (Katherine Watson) displays fantastic comedic commitment from both performers; the French scene between Princess Katherine (Amelia MacDonald) and Alice (Lexie Matheson) is utterly delightful; and the Boy’s (Delaney O’Hara) private soliloquies are show-stopping moments of honesty.
In the title role, Jennifer Matter serves and leads her cast well, displaying a fiery righteousness that burns brighter and brighter as the play progresses, and finally exploding during the inspirational battle speech. Her standout moment, however, is not on the battlefield but during the seduction of Princess Katherine, showcasing a sly cockiness that seems perfectly inhabited, and sorely missing from the rest of the show.
While by no means my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, I really wanted to like this Henry V. It’s a play with a highly complex protagonist and potentially resonant themes. The casting, too, is a perfect antidote to the historical excess of the all-male Shakespeare. But this production fails to convey both the scale and ramifications of war, struggling to justify its existence to contemporary audiences. I have no doubt that the show will develop and become more clear as the season progresses, but unless you’re prepared to risk sitting through a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, I recommend the groundling seats and some preliminary reading beforehand.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Leigh Sykes (of the earier Pah Homestead Season)
DISCLOSURE: Producer Sharu Delilkan and designer Tim Booth are also contributors to Theatre Scenes