A squad of soldiers marches through the Quays Theatre belting out a Pogues song. On taking the stage they appeal to us to use our imagination to flesh out their version of the tale of the warrior king Henry V. It is understandable that director Edward Hall wants to get the maximum effect from the Propeller Theatre’s strength as an ensemble.
Rather than use a single actor as Chorus, as is traditional in this play, he uses the whole company. The cascading voices of this Greek Chorus add to the feeling of foreboding and, as the cast remain as silent witness to the unfolding drama, provide a reminder that decisions taken will have an effect upon the foot soldiers.
This is an imaginative and brisk version of the play. The scenes of the respective armies preparing for battle are written as separate but Hall alternates from one to the other which is not only faster but allows greater comparison and gives the visual effect of the arrogant French literally looking down on the weary English. The play would, however, have benefited from a clearer indication of how Henry ruled England when not at war. The constant presence of the Chorus suggests a police state but this aspect is never explored.
The impact of war is never far away in this production. Michael Pavelka has designed a set that resembles a stark army barracks. The jingoistic effect of conflict is brought out in songs that celebrate the boisterous (even yobbish) British soldiers and sneer at the effete French. But this is not a dour version. Propeller follows the Shakespearian tradition of an all-male company and the hilarious, and very hairy, Karl Davies confirms many prejudices about French women. Tony Bell’s dry delivery achieves the rare feat of making Flullen-one of Shakespeare’s windbags- funny. On the other hand the whip-crack voice of John Dougall and Chris Myles’s steadfast Exeter bring gravity to the show.
Dugland Bruce-Lockhart is a tormented Henry racked with guilt over his father’s usurping of the throne. On initial hearing his voice – clipped and slightly strangled- seems ill suited for some of the greatest speeches in theatre but, it becomes apparent, is perfect for being so familiar to that of the modern royals. It is a highly physical performance. Bruce-Lockhart appeals direct to the audience and paces the metal scaffolding like a caged tiger.
Propeller manages to give the audience an unflinching look at the horrors of combat and a tremendously entertaining evening.