Director Roland Smith has more than a passing acquaintance with the casualties of war. When his close friend paratrooper Captain Richard Holmes was killed while serving in Iraq in 2006, his grief was countered by the knowledge that Richard died doing something he believed in. While public approval for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have dwindled, there has been a surge in the support for the men and women serving in the armed forces; despite the snowballing dissatisfaction with the politics of the wars, the warriors themselves are heralded for their single-minded heroism.
With this in mind, there is an all-too familiar cynicism as this production of Henry V opens with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely totting up the Church’s bank balance, and concluding that they would be financially better off if the King were to wage war on France. It’s certainly a production that reveals the horrors of war as well as its triumphs, and the motivations of individuals are singled out for blame or praise or both. Smith’s direction is superb, and every step of the way he questions what motivates us to go to war, to battle not only against other people but also our own personal demons.
The set, created by HalfCut and designer Katharine Heath, is an army barracks fitted with poignant attention to detail. There are bare wooden tables scattered with the remnants of interrupted card games, and sandbags by way of seating. I get to sit on a soldier’s bed, complete with Spartan-like blanket and increasingly faded family photographs. Some of the touches are as witty as they are pertinent, with one bunk-side table carrying a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and an English-French dictionary.
The action that fills the space is mesmerizing, and Philip Desmeules’ portrayal of Henry is particularly heartfelt. His conflicting emotions waver between resolve and relief; eager to rally his troops, yet cautious not to cause unnecessary suffering. He is heroic, but haunted; above everything else, he is human. When encouraging his army to go ‘once more into the breach, dear friends’, it’s damned difficult not to get up and join them.
The rest of the cast double up parts throughout, and Liam Smith as Pistol and the French King is remarkably adept. Usually I feel a sense of dread when I see an actor change out of one set of clothes and into another - but Smith’s versatility immediately wipes the memory of his previous role. He plays Pistol as a straight-up thug, the lowest dreg of the English army, opportunistic as a vulture. To then see his bullying leer erase itself into the quiet expression of the affected French monarch is frankly staggering.
It’s good that a play notoriously short on female stage-time not only makes the most of the witty scenes between Catherine, Alice and Henry, but also has the women of the cast make up the English army. In particular, Zimmy Ryan does well to convey the struggle between vulnerability and self-worth undergone by the boy. But no one drops the ball on this brilliant team effort.
The backstage team have created a wholly credible warzone. A sound installation by designer Fergus Waldron and the Lab Collective frequently shatters the nerves of the audience as shells explode and shots rain down all over the space. At times restorative, at times deeply unsettling, the music reverberates around the barracks and becomes as much of a background as the sandbags. William Reynolds’ lighting design must also be applauded for its gorgeous subtleties: the opening lines "O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention" are lit only by a single flame, which imperceptibly spreads around the space as the lights are gradually, gradually brought up.
This production is studded with jaw-dropping moments. Not only is the language delivered in a deeply affecting way, but the soundscape’s eloquence speaks volumes as soldiers race into battle, and the hospital boys nervously awaiting the return of bloodied men.
Above all, Desmeules’ portrayal of the King is ardently profound, and it is his passion and purpose that gives the production its humanity. Wholly visceral, this is an epic stunner of a spectacle that rebukes and restores, depresses and cheers, battles and, indeed, triumphs.