Trinity College Gardens is a picturesque setting for Oxford Theatre Guild’s annual summer Shakespeare. This year they take us to the ‘vasty fields of France’ for the classic tale of war and politics, noble bravery and scurrilous low-life that is Henry V.
Modern theatre-goers are used to seeing Shakespeare done with eight or so actors and a lot of creative doubling, and it is therefore a pleasant change to see this well-established amateur group take full advantage of a luxury not available to most professional productions, with a cast of around thirty (although even this still leaves a number of them playing multiple roles). At the centre of this large and enthusiastic company, Alistair Nunn gives a committed and consistent performance as Henry himself. In a piece which depends so heavily on ensemble playing, however, it seems unfair to single out other individuals.
Henry V is well known for being a play without much scope for female actors, and director Joanna Matthews makes a valiant attempt to redress the balance with a handful of cross-cast roles and a four woman chorus. In places, this works well; in others it is unfortunately less successful.
Due credit must go to the backstage team: the sumptuous costumes are worthy of a major professional production, and the complex, multi-levelled set was somewhat reminiscent of that used in the RSC’s recent history plays cycle, with careful use of doors and trapdoors providing opportunities for moments both dramatic and poignant.
For what is perhaps one of the world’s most famous pieces of theatre about a military engagement, the play has surprisingly few action sequences: it is chiefly a succession of court scenes and army camp conversations. While this is a feature of the play rather than a fault in the production, it was hard not to feel that some judicious trimming and a somewhat brisker pace would have helped the evening move along: three and a quarter hours is a long time to sit in a garden on a rapidly cooling English summer evening. It did at least remain dry – although this meant we were deprived of the opportunity to witness the spectacle promised by the front of house manager: that the actors would carry on performing if it rained… but only once they had removed their costumes!