What sort of man is Henry V? Is he the national hero that Shakespeare so obviously wants us to admire? Or is he a nationalistic warmonger who is happy to sacrifice human life for his own personal ambition?
Miles Gregory's production for British Touring Shakespeare doesn't really answer these questions. Instead we get a Henry who is a flawed hero: brave in battle but yobbish and immature in court - he keeps the French royals waiting before signing the treaty while he cavorts offstage with his cronies from the English court. Has the old Hal really vanished? Scratch the king and the Eastcheap hoodlum appears, it seems.
The BTS company wants to make Shakespeare more accessible and attract new audiences. It's a young and lively organisation and it has picked wisely here: Henry V is a play that is perfect for a small cast and a bare stage. Right from the opening speech, the chorus gets the excuses in early, exhorting us to imagine the two mighty monarchies in front of the cast, busy donning robes for the opening scene.
Gregory's production is taken at a cracking pace - barely a few minutes into the play and we reach the Salic law speech, which, mercifully for the audience (except possibly any lawyers who like this sort of thing), is cut short by an impatient Henry.
This is a clear and thoughtful piece of storytelling: there are cuts made to the text but not so deep that the play is made hard to follow. That said, tere are some strange omissions. The threats against the citizens of Honfleur are omitted - is this Henry that tender-hearted? And why remove the 'foot' gag from the English lesson scene (although there's a good joke on 'elbow').
I didn't really warm to Tom Mallaburn's Henry. He speaks the verse effectively, if a little unemotionally - the "gentleman of England now a-bed" speech is particularly low-key. He neither has the charisma to be a natural leader nor the authority to be a despot. The only time when a hard edge creeps in is when he commands the soldiers to kill the French prisoners - an order that is quickly carried out by Pistol on the unfortunate LeFer.
The acting honours are stolen by Mike Rogers as a nimble-footed and genial chorus (and in a multitude of other parts). But this Henry V is a good team effort by a hard-working cast of 11, covering all the roles between them and delivering a clear and cogent, if not radical, interpretation of the story.