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Review: Henry V (Ustinov Studio)

Shakespeare's wartime classic is reimagined by Elizabeth Freestone

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Heledd Gwynn and Ben Hall in Henry V
© Craig Fuller

It's all change for theatre company Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory, with founder and long-term artistic director Andrew Hilton retiring, and its new production premiering, not at the south Bristol former factory from which it takes its name, but at the Ustinov Studio in Bath as part of its summer season. Yet for those concerned that the company's identity may have changed with these shifts, Henry V will help alleviate these fears; it's clear and concise, a simple staging with a few neat ideas tucked within its structure.

Elizabeth Freestone's production does not take a political stance on the merits of war. Whereas Olivier perked up the national spirit with his movie and Hytner took on the follies of the Iraq war in 2003, Freestone is careful just to let the text shift its scales. There are no right and wrong answers here, each decision is a compromise. Henry can be both heroic war hero and brutal warlord ordering the prisoners executed. War can change anyone.

As the king, Ben Hall (grandson of Peter Hall, founder of the Bath summer season) isn't always on top of the role. In the early stages, he garbles his speech, as the verse rattles out of him at an unnatural speed. His "Once More Unto The Breach Dear Friends" is lost in a blur of similes, it is only later as he tries to come to terms with his decisions that he slows things down and lets the text sing.

The cast of Henry V
© Craig Fuller

If Hall has some trouble with the verse, Joanne Howarth as Chorus shows him how it's done. Hers is a terrific portrayal, conversational and natural, letting Shakespeare's lines flow and giving colour to her words in the way of a born storyteller. Early on she has the sing-song delivery that suggests a quest, a heroic knight going off to conquer the big bad French. As carnage piles up, her delivery becomes mournful, eyes shrouded in tears, as she contemplates the horror around her. She is one with this world, her delivery setting in place the atmosphere of the scenes to come.

Freestone's best decision is to blend the Dauphin and princess Katherine together. Garbed up like Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max, hair shorn to the scalp and coiled to strike, Heledd Gwynn portrays this Katherine, not as the pretty Princess used for political gain, but as a battle-hardened warrior who provides a worthwhile adversary to the King. Not only does it give the work a much needed strong feminine presence, it allows the production to shed fresh light on her two scenes. Her learning English scene is shifted to the end of the play and conducted over the body of her fallen French lover, and consequently, the final wooing scene has the same frisson of danger of Tricky Dicky and Anne in Richard III, as murderer seduces widower, in another clever mirroring of the tetralogy.

Henry V is a good production, close to being very good as and when Hall beds himself in (and with a tour that stretches until November he has plenty of time to do it). For anyone worried that Hilton's exit would mark the end for clear, sharp Shakespeare in the south-west, they can rest easy. Here, the play's the thing, as it's always been for this terrific company.