I don’t think it would be right to start this review without acknowledging that OVO – as director Matthew Parker highlights in his programme note – is one of the first companies to be staging live theatre since lockdown. After nearly five months, audiences are once again coming together and partaking in the communal experience of sitting side-by-side (albeit with social distancing very firmly in place) and watching a show. Parker’s fast-paced 90-minute adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V is a very welcome re-ignition of the theatrical spark we’ve so missed.
Having never seen or read Henry V before I was relying heavily on Parker’s script edit and framework to feel the depth of the original story. The show begins in a school classroom, the cast an ensemble of students returning in the summer holidays to rehearse the school production that was put on hold. The very composed Ms Nightingale (Cassandra Hodges) sits with an air of nonchalance atop a classroom desk, Mr Spencer (Edward Elgood) is on the sound desk, on a stage decorated with coat stands for various costumes that the cast of ten change in and out of to multi-role. The prop weapons are locked in the drama cupboard, so they’re having to use tennis rackets as a substitute.
Meanwhile, the whole show-within-the-show needs re-blocking to comply with social distancing regulations, and we’re reminded of this regularly throughout with humour and playfulness. The acting has a quality of melodrama to it. Gestures are extravagant, flamboyant on the whole, and expressions larger than life. Along with the school classroom setting, this presents the show with a theatre-in-education feel, its target audience perhaps a bit younger than my guesstimate average age of attendance from the day I made my visit. With this flamboyance comes an array of dynamic stage images, an ensemble which flows through scene changes in a way which feels tightly choreographed and presents stunning tableaux.
Following his antics in the plays which precede, Henry V sees a calmer, more mature King. Mara Allen plays a very measured Henry V, moving through his story with determination, a steady head. This is in contrast to the caricatures she’s surrounded by, particularly Jack Reitman’s flamboyant French King. A quick shout out also to Felipe Pacheco who emits a captivating warmth and excitement throughout the production. He’s so eager to get stuck in and it’s a real delight to observe this. I’m not sure Henry V itself is Shakespeare’s most gripping drama, so the light-hearted play for example between Rachel Fenwick’s Katherine and Paula Gilmour’s Alice in the ‘de hand, de fingers, de nails’ scene is joyfully entertaining.
I always feel like it’s a bit of a cop-out when shows use music or other media to enhance the emotional stakes of the story when it comes primarily from the song, rather than from the action. One of the student’s requests includes featuring Stormzy’s Heavy is the Head, fitting given the play is about a King and all. However, the gravity and emotional depth in the tone of the song feels uncomplimentary juxtaposed with the bright and playful feel of the show. But again, its choices like this one which enhances the show’s TIE feel. I think it’s yearning for a younger crowd.
What also gives it that feel is the simplicity of the props giving the production that DIY aesthetic that sees a tennis racket for a sword or a silver bucket for a campfire. In one amusing moment, a group ride on their “horses”, some wooden mops, with one mophead falling off the top and another missing altogether. I adore the slight chaos here, the school production budget which gives us no choice but to see the show through our ‘imaginary forces’. The metatheatrical quality of this play – as referred to in the Chorus’s prologue – is aptly realised through this endearingly haphazard prop-work. It’s trial and error; it’s giving things a go and working with whatever props and resources we have access to so that the show can go on. Extra touches to the set, the gold sheets waving about in the wind and the never-not-exciting smoke machines plotted around the top and sides of the stage, all add to the spectacle.
A last-minute mention to Honor Klein and Becky Brown, Stage Manager and Production Manager, respectively. We get a bit of a glimpse into the COVID risk-assessed rehearsal room, and I can only imagine the extra care gone into making this work possible at the moment, so I think it’s only fair to credit the brilliant backstage professionals who are enabling this work to go ahead with the safety of the actors and creatives a total priority.
A big congratulations for making work in some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable, and a definite show to add to your list if you’ve been missing sitting in an actual theatre as much as I have.
Review by Joseph Winer
Henry IV is dead and the young Prince Hal is King. With England in a state of unrest, he must leave his rebellious youth behind and prove himself a worthy ruler. The young king becomes feted warrior as a tiny kingdom rouses its spirits to stake a claim on the towering throne of France.
From monarchs to miscreants, Lords to lackeys, Shakespeare’s Henry V unites a cross section of humanity on the historical fields of Agincourt in an epic battle for heart and home.
LUKE ADAMSON – (Paul) Ely, Dauphin, Fluellen
RACHEL FENWICK – (Ffion) Boy, Cambridge, Katherine, Governor of Harfleur, Court
FELIPE PACHECO – (Ralph) Exeter, Nym, Bates
PAULA GILMOUR – (Josie) Canterbury, Bardolph, Alice, Rambures
JACK REITMAN – (Zach) Gloucester, French King
MARA ALLEN – (Agatha) Henry
CASSANDRA HODGES – (Ms Nightingale) Chorus, Westmorland, Williams
EDWARD ELGOOD – (Mr Spencer) Orleans, Gower, Erpingham, Burgundy
MELISSA SHIRLEY-ROSE – (Lily) Montjoy, Hostess, Scroop, Queen Isabel
JAMES KENINGALE – (Dante) Pistol, Gray, Constable of France, English Herald
MATTHEW PARKER – Director, Adaptor and Choreographer
OLIVER MCFADDEN – Assistant Director
SIMON NICHOLAS – Set
LIZZIE THOMSON – Costume
ADAM BOTTOMLEY – Lighting
MICHAEL BIRD – Sound
HONOR KLEIN – Stage Manager
BECKY BROWN – Production Manager
THE MALTINGS OPEN AIR THEATRE FESTIVAL
at THE ROMAN THEATRE of VERULAMIUM
St Albans, Herts AL3 6AH
with re-imagined versions of Shakespeare’s HENRY V