This is the eleventh year that famous West End producer Thelma Holt has collaborated with Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) on an international tour of a Shakespeare play. This year the student cast and crew will take their edited version of Henry V from Oxford to Stratford and thence to Tbilisi in Georgia after a week in the Trafalgar Studios in London. Quite a challenge for a young team.
The director, Tim Hoare, has been ruthless in his preparation of the text. Incorporating sequences from Henry IV part 2 and Henry VI part 1, he has reshaped the original play – cutting many scenes, reworking others. For a play that can often run close to four hours if left uncut, it is a relief to find a version that comes in at a little over two hours plus interval. Whilst the famous speeches remain more or less intact, we do lose some of the contrasts inherent in the original text. Much of the humour in the play is in the scenes with the common soldiers and the rogues – most of which are excised. Gone also is the famous scene between Katherine and Alice about the naming of body parts – not vital in terms of plot or character but it does allow some relief from the politics and battles that surround it.
Overall the version is swift, straightforward and direct – and manageable with the resources available. The cast numbers only ten players – which could easily have created confusion given that the dramatis personae could include over 40 named roles if left untrimmed. It is a credit to the production team that the relationships and characters were always very clearly delineated and the action easy to follow.
Inevitably the play stands or falls on the central performance. Henry is so central to the action that any weakness could undermine the entire endeavour. Jacob Lloyd has the necessary authority, warmth and charm to cope well with the demands of the role. His delivery of the verse is confident and secure and he is in control of the stage at all times. I would have perhaps liked a little more introspection on the eve of Agincourt – but in the set-piece speeches and the all-important wooing of Katherine, he is very much the young, potent king.
The rest of the ensemble play their many roles with confidence and enthusiasm. They must be commended for covering for the absence of one of their number seamlessly – a cast member having had to withdraw at the last minute for personal reasons. Their achievement in reworking almost every scene to cope with this change is to be applauded.
One of the issues that any production must address is that of the morality of war. The scene where he orders the execution of all the French prisoners has long posed questions for directors, actors, audiences and moral philosophers. This production shows the King very much as part of the execution squad – which could be interpreted as showing Henry as less the expedient ruler dealing with a morally challenging decision and more of a man out for blood. I found this somewhat at odds with the characterisation in the rest of the play but it was not so troubling as to adversely affect my enjoyment of the evening as a whole.
This production is not perfect – very few are. What it is is an honest, brave and energetic re-imagining of a play that has defeated many more experienced teams. There is a depth of talent on and off-stage that is certain to see some of those involved making their way into the professions in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps this is your opportunity to do a bit of talent-spotting! It is certainly worth a couple of hours of your time.