This 60 minute four hander is a witty, quasi feminist take on Shakespeare's greatest war play, inspired by it rather than in any sense a version of it.
Four children, one named Henry (Shane Zaza) and another Katherine (Hannah Boyde) along with Abdul Salis as prologue-style narrator and Rhys Rusbatch as a disdainful slightly older lad, are playing make believe and allowing a story to unfold. And the story which emerges takes even more – often hilarious – liberties with the history, even than Shakespeare did. Purni Morell, who has translated this play by Belgian Ignace Cornelissen, has fun with deliberate historical howlers such as Henry wondering about his A levels and commemorative stamps and even as he spies France and covets it.
Boyde gives us a deliciously determined and feisty Katherine, ultimately triumphing over the other three. Zaza gets a nice mixture of simple boyishness and cunning determination for his tactless Henry. Salis is enjoyable as the narrator who is often paraphrasing Shakespeare's great word-picture prologues and he and Zaza have a nicely judged scene together based on the night before Agincourt in the tense camp. Rusbatch is ruefully funny as Distant Cousin Nigel who also wants the castles of France and to marry Katherine – who thinks kissing is gross and isn't actually going to marry anyone just yet.
Did I mention castles? The sets and design (James Button) are almost the best thing in this very original piece of theatre. Much of the action is played out on a massive billiard table-like structure which is a sandpit representing France. It starts very neat with sharp tessellated sand castles. By the end it's a scene of devastation once all the helium balloons – blue for French soldiers and red for English – have burst.
This Henry V uses a lot of atmospheric music (sound designer Emma Luxton) to interesting effect including extracts from Vaughan Williams, Mahler and Shostakovich.
All in all it's an enjoyable piece of theatre and I suppose it will help to introduce children (Unicorn is a theatre for young audiences, after all) to the extraordinary play which engendered it, although I hope those same children also get to hear Shakespeare's text soon. The words by Cornelissen/Morell are good but Shakespeare is, of course, better.
- Susan Elkin