The Royal Exchange has produced some excellent Shakespeare productions, attracting both old and new audiences to the work of The Bard. Their Henry V is big, bold and atmospheric, despite the odd flaw. With war still raging all over the world, the play is incredibly timely and director Jonathan Munby brings the harsh reality to the stage, with the odd modern twist. Some of them work; whilst others seem tacked on and ill advised, although Munby certainly knows how to make an audience laugh, amongst the bloodshed.
The war scenes are incredibly powerful and this is down to a number of factors; Mike Britton's metallic set works wonderfully highlighting Henry's steely determination as his army grows, Oliver Fenwick's evocative lighting and Steve Brown's thrilling sound effects also drum the horrors into your psyche. Likewise Dominic Haslam's excellent music acts like a film soundtrack, constantly driving the narrative forward.
Like so many adaptators of Shakespeare, Munby adds contemporary touches but some of these additions seem clumsy. Lucy Bailey's A Midsummer Night's Dream, here at the Royal Exchange, was inventive, original, yet it retained that classic feel. Munby inserts skinheads, football fans and an Anne Summers' loving Peggy Mitchell sound-alike. There is also an overlong scene in French which reminded me of a similar self indulgent scene in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. French speakers will always laugh at these irrelevant elements but others in the audience will always feel bemused and slightly alienated. The laughter I heard felt overdone, as you are encouraging your audience to think that their guffaws equal sophistication, compared with the head-scratchers.
A play such as this requires strong, commanding performances, as the battle scenes themselves are exhausting, alone. This cast are impeccable throughout; from the supporting players through to the strong leads. Elliot Cowan’s Henry is a naïve, privileged man in the beginning, steely eyed individual in the war scenes and hopeless romantic by the denouement. He impresses throughout, like a chameleon, delivering comedy, passion and murderous intent throughout. Gerard Murphy though is the performer of the night, as Exeter. His cavalier-like performance leaves you laughing, even before he has opened his mouth and his marvellous monologues, have you gripped to his every word.
This Henry is an epic, admirable production which although not perfect, is a great way to start a new season, as there are scenes which startle you into submission.