I saw one of the previews, but it already looked very good indeed and I think I might be back towards the end of the run to see it again, and there might be some spoilers in this review, so beware of that. This was the first time that I've been to this (or any other) "theatre in the round". It's a bit unusual to see a theatre where the stage is surrounded on *all* sides by the audience, but it's not really a problem (like I had feared it would be) as the production is geared outwards, towards the audience. Maybe I was just lucky in having a particularly good seat, for there was only one single instance where I was unable to see what was going on.
The early scene where Canterbury lays out the details of Salic law and why H5 really does have a legitimate claim to the throne of France is done as a bit of marvellously absurd comedy, a very, very good directorial decision and one that really pays off. That whole scene (1.2) is a make or break point for any production and what emerges here is a production that will go from strength to strength, though there are some minor things overall that I didn't quite agree with. The tennis ball bit is usually where you can tell if it's going to be a good H5 or not, and Elliot Cowan as H5 is just so right in the scene, amused and annoyed at the right level and with the restraint that I always prefer to see in this scene, if not quite the coldness that I always picture H5 as possessing.
It's a modern dress production, with uniforms and guns, which I always have some reservations about. Yes, it works well enough, but in some scenes, like at Harfleur, the way that the characters suddenly stop to deliver dialogue in the middle of storming a castle somewhat strains the suspension of disbelief. It might not be too unbelievable if you're storming a fort defended by 15th century weaponry, but when the defenders obviously have grenades and machine guns – well, let's just say that I have yet to see a modern dress production that actually manages to make those scenes believable. That doesn't mean that they're bad, far from it, they're very cleverly staged and powerfully acted, and the scene where H5 delivers his threatening ultimatum to the citizens of Harfleur through a megaphone is done exactly to my taste. No doubt that *this* H5 means what he says, and would, if push came to shove, do exactly what he threatens them with, understanding completely the need to make an example from time to time. Cowan is exceptionally good as the warrior-king, and it's very nice to see a production where you believe in H5 the warrior, and not just the king part.
The decision to have the same actor double as the Chorus and Exeter (an almost unrecognizable Gerard Murphy) is an odd one, even if it made a bit more sense when Jonathan Munby (the director) explained afterwards that he wanted this to emphasize that the Chorus really expresses a soldier's view. Interesting idea, even if I didn't think that it really worked , and god knows what those that weren't all that familiar with the play made of it, as Murphy switched from Exeter to Chorus, without any pause or scene change, simply by removing his military cap. Did those that had never seen it before even understand that they were two separate characters? I wonder.
But other than that I thought that it was very well directed and thought through, though some might find it a bit too long, though not me as, I like my Shakespeare as uncut as possible. No whole scenes or events have been cut, but some lines have been gently trimmed here and there and it clocked in at around 3.10, but some more cuts were probably forthcoming. I certainly think that the Chorus bits would benefit from being trimmed down and tightened up a bit. The hanging of Bardolph is shown on stage, not something that I normally like to see inserted, but it's beautifully staged and well acted, and the text does allow for it – sort of – unlike Nunn's brainless idea to have Lear's Fool strung up and hanged on stage. This is very much an ensemble piece, well played by all, and it's hard to single out individual performances for special praise. And thank goodness there’s nothing weepy about this H5 in the hanging scene, although I was unable to see the expression on his face initially due to the staging of the scene. When Bardolph is swinging, his one act of mercy and sympathy for his old drinking buddy is to put him out of his misery with a bullet, ending his death struggle, before composedly declaring that this is what will happen to all that offenders that are caught; absolutely bloody brilliant that was, and totally in keeping with H5 the Machiavel, who does what needs to be done no matter what.
The battle scenes are staged as very wet events, with water dripping down continuously, drenching the actors on a suitably soggy battlefield. This is visually wonderful, but at times all that water dripping into water makes such a noise that I wonder at how audible the dialogue is from the more distant seats. Speaking about audibility, I had real problems making out a single word that Pistol was saying, even when I knew the lines! The problem wasn't actually audibility, but rather the accent that he was using (possibly compounded by diction). Now, I don't normally have a problem understanding regional accents – and I daresay that some regional accents and dialects are probably easier to understand for me (a Swede) that for some English people, as many of the northern ones consist of loanwords from the Viking period, and have more in common with Old Norse than Modern English – but whichever accent he used left me baffled. It wasn't that I didn't understand it, I simply couldn't distinguish any recognizable words, which was rather an odd experience.
But it was altogether very good, and I'm not easy to please when it comes to Shakespeare (I gave a one star review to at least one other production this year), and I would definitely recommend it to anyone that happens to pass by Manchester in the next month or so.
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