People often talk about the magic of theatre and when you stop to think, then there is a lot of truth in this phrase. Just look at the big budget West End shows that transport the viewer to a 1980s mining town at the height of the strike, or a shoe factory in the Midlands, or even evacuate the entire US embassy in a helicopter. And yet as every Artistic Director of a fringe theatre can attest, you don’t need huge sets, massive casts and a multitude of props to make that magic happen. I’m just saying this as recently I saw a fine example of theatrical magic at work in the Southwark Playhouse where Merely Theatre were presenting their Henry V.
You enter the auditorium to see an almost empty, plain wooden traverse stage with seats either side, and a single rough hewn seat at one end. As the audience take their seats, members of that performance’s cast come out and start to warm up. The warm up is quite intense – I was exhausted just watching – and then when all five actors are on the stage, the play begins with the Chorus (Robert Myles) introducing the story and away we go. For anyone that doesn’t know, Henry V is a tale based on true events when the young King (Zena Carswell) goes off to lay claim to the whole of France, much to the annoyance of the King of France (Stephen Leask) and his court. Once Henry lands and takes the city of Harfleur, the French King sends his Herald, Montjoy (Simon Grujich) to parley with Henry and point out that he should really go home now as the French army vastly outnumbered the British. Henry ignores this and marches on with his nobles and common soldiers such as the boastful and swaggering Pistol (David Gerits) to battle the French army at Agincourt and win a famous victory.
Now, in the synopsis above, two things may have struck you. The first is that I have only named five actors and the second is that King Henry is played by a female actor. In total, the Merely Theatre company has ten actors (five men and five women) and they work in pairs to cover every role in whichever production they are putting on. So for each show, there could be a male or a female actor playing a particular group of roles. For example, in this production of Henry V the roles of Canterbury, Montjoy, Katherine and Boy were all played by Simon Grujich but could equally have been played by his acting ‘twin’ Emmy Rose. The use of a male/female acting ‘twin’ means that all roles are gender blind, so in this case, the King was played by a woman. And guess what? It didn’t matter. At first I was surprised when Zena took up the King’s shirt but very quickly realised it was irrelevant. This was King Henry and when the character delivered the fantastic ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech I had a real lump in my throat.
The staging of Henry V worked really well and keeping track of the various characters was very easy thanks, not only to the quality of the acting but also the wonderful device of having everyone in football shirts – red for England, Blue for France – with their number and name on the back. Scott Ellis’ direction is very fast – no wonder the cast had to physically warm up beforehand – and some of the character changes seemed to happen almost instantaneously with an actor running off stage as one character then straight away back on as another. A quick mention here for Lighting Designer Christopher Nairne’s magical use of the lights to create the night before the battle scene.
So, all in all, Henry V was a really good, fast, entertaining production that in many way brought the play back to the way it would have been played in Shakespeare’s day. No set, no props and virtually no costumes, just great acting, a lovely story and truly inspiring dialogue. Once more, the magic of theatre lives on.
Review by Terry Eastham
As criticism mounts over opportunities for women in theatre, Merely Theatre use a company of five male and five female actors, producing gender-blind, five-hand Shakespeare productions touring the UK in 2016.