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Henry V (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Panegyric or satire? Opinions – and productions – of Shakespeare’s Henry V never quite seem to stay on one side or the other for long. It’s a play of its time, and for our time; one in which we are required at the Chorus’ bidding to “let our imaginations work” (and work hard). Dominic Dromgoole’s staging for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Tour takes on board the military and court cultures of the early 15th century but allows weight to the 21st century’s take on such things.

Designer Jonathan Fensom presents us with a scaffolding framework backed with heraldic motifs and costumes which are basically of the late Tudor or Jacobean period. There’s much to-ing and fro-ing through the auditorium with musicians both on-stage and providing a species of surround-sound from the back of the theatre. Kate Waters stylises the battle scenes to good effect but ultimately it is the acting which sweeps the audience up into the dramatic turmoil.

In the tile role, Jamie Parker gives a superb performance, with the still-youthful man and the anointed king equally on show. There’s fire and a touch of impatience as well as a realisation of the weight of duty (and of his family’s recent history) in this characterisation. To a great extent, most of the other characters are satellites to this monarch, though a number of individual performances – there’s considerable doubling of parts – do stand out.

Chief among these are the Fluellen of Brendan O’Hea, so much more than the token Welshman in the four-nations host, Kurt Egyiawan’s Dauphin with attitude, Nigel Cooke’s authoritative Exeter, Matthew Flynn's no-nonsense Gower and the kitten-with-claws Katherine of Olivia Ross (who also doubles as Falstaff’s boy page). As the Chorus whose interpolations take us from London to Southampton to France and back again and make us all-but partakers of the action, Bríd Brennan has the gift to wrap the well-known lines around us with more than a touch of freshness. She also plays Queen Isabel.

Overall, the verse-speaking is excellent with Paul Rider making Canterbury’s long exposition of Henry’s claim to the throne of France and Burgundy’s last scene plea for peace both intelligible and effective. There are a few judicious additions to and snippets cut from the text, including Chorus’ last speech which provides a dark counterpoint to Queen’s Isabel’s plea for unity. Instead, we have the traditional romping dance where the gaiety of the leaps and lifts scarcely disguises the sword-hardened positioning of hands and the lunge-like steps of the men.


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