It is one thing for the Union Theatre to host, as it did a few years ago, a production of an all-male cast of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, but Shakespeare’s Henry V is not a quirky light opera comedy. To present an all-female cast as a ‘band of brothers’ who score a decisive victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt is a bold move by the Lazarus Theatre Company, here making their Union Theatre debut.
The cast list is striking because the King of France, Queen Isabel, their daughter Katherine, and virtually every other French character is missing. I was also surprised at hearing Te Deum at the start, and again before the interval. It is, of course, sung at the end on the orders of Henry V (Colette O’Rourke), but it differs from most other productions of this play that have a relatively joyous English group that are so lively the King is almost forced to call for order and restraint after the victory is secured: there is nothing glorious about war. Here, the group of noble English start with a perspective of solemnity about the grim task ahead, and continue in much the same vain. So when the King commands, ‘Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum’, it is not so much a kick up the rear end for the others as a continuation of the approach and attitude they adopted at the outset.
The costumes are largely lacking, with our characters donning blue overalls, except where it is absolutely necessary to dress differently, such as the King’s disguise in order to speak to a commoner, Pistol (Emily Owens) on a commoner’s terms. It was a surprise to me for the King to be not dressed any more regally (or regally at all) than anyone else on the stage. It made it difficult to follow who was a bishop, a duke, a rank-and-file soldier, and so on – whilst underlining that this is a team effort, both in terms of winning at Agincourt and in terms of the cast functioning as a team unit, rather than the role of the King dominating so much that one would, if one did not know better, think that Henry V did most of the slaying at Agincourt all by himself. In hindsight, it may be that the show set out to depict Henry as an equal, at least in terms of being as much of a vulnerable human being as the next person.
Further, director Ricky Dukes lets O’Rourke be King in her native Mancunian accent. Not that this caused any problems, but again it is something I have not come across before. There was a slight moment of amusement for yours truly when the stresses of the script’s iambic pentameter (or blank verse, if you please) led Henry to describe the Constable of France as ‘cunt-sta-bul’, with heavy emphasis on the first syllable and a micropause immediately after it. As if Henry disliked the French enough as it was.
The focus on the English perspective leaves the audience knowing as much as the characters do. This leaves the audience, in my humble opinion, short changed. Had this production been more faithful to the original Shakespeare text, we would have had Henry courting Katherine, the daughter of the King of France, and all the hilarity of a language barrier on both sides. What in other productions of Henry V might be considered well-needed comic relief for the audience is deemed frivolous and unnecessary here. So all but the very last 14 lines of Act V completely disappear. This, I suspect, will be too much for play purists, and maybe disappointing for feminists who are denied witnessing an all-female cast at what would have to be a same-sex wedding. To its credit, the show does not change the third person pronoun ‘he’ to ‘she’ in reference to King Henry or any other man. These are male characters, after all, who happen to be played by women.
This production does not excise any and all stereotyping. We still have Fluellen (RJ Seeley), the Welshman, and Jamy (Louise Goodfield), the Scot. There is minimal scenery, and therefore minimal scene changes. The show darts from one scene to the next by a loud drum roll, sometimes accompanied with a sudden change of light. It is pacier than I expected; never was the line ‘On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!’ quite so relevant. With no need for music or any sort of pause between scenes, the tension remains unbroken to the interval. And why not? Perhaps with a lesser talented cast this show may have dragged on, especially with so much of the humour in the original text removed. Here, the action is over all too soon.
O’Rourke’s ‘Once more into the breach’ speech is said on her (his) knees, as a prayer, rather than a call to arms in the style of a town crier. This subtler approach is very far removed from the hair-dryer treatment found in productions where Henry is portrayed as a shouty alpha male. Of particular mention, too are Kerry Willison-Parry’s Archbishop of Canterbury and Sophie Tanza Quinn’s Gower, who I found to be particularly engaging in their delivery.
In the end, I felt so much was cut out that it almost ceased to be a Shakespeare play. The lack of set and costumes, however, forces the audience to rely on the dialogue. But again, with so many characters (however minor) removed and so much dialogue skipped through, a little too much has been sliced off this oft-performed masterpiece. I am compelled to go so far to say that if you choose to see this particular production, you’re not seeing the whole of Henry V, merely an abridged version. I’d say this is best enjoyed by people who have seen Henry V before and would be appreciative of a radically different interpretation, or those who like their shows to be quick in pace and plot development, or those who haven’t seen Henry V before and therefore (unlike me) have no preconceptions.
Review by Chris Omaweng
King Henry V
Playing until the 18th July, 2015
In 2016 a government-commissioned report on the ban on women serving in close combat roles will be published. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said armed forces roles “should be determined by ability and not gender”.
An all-new, all-female production of Shakespeare’s war play, King Henry V follows Henry and her band of brothers as they face the challenges of life on the front line, exploring the role of women in the military, leadership and the legacy of empire.
King Henry (the Commander-in-Chief) – Colette O’Rourke
Exeter (the Protector) – Kemi-bo Jacobs
Westmorland (the Conciliator) – Greta Gould
Archbishop of Canterbury (the divine) – Kerry Willison-Parry
Bishop of Ely (the Interpreter) – Elly Lowney
Gower (the Enforcer) – Sophie Tanza Quinn
Fluellen (the Tactician) – RJ Seeley
Jamy (the Intelligencer) – Louise Goodfield
Pistol (the Administrator) – Emily Owens
MacMorris (the Observer) – Nuala McGowan
The Chorus and Henry IV played by company
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Ricky Dukes
Lighting Design by Stuart Glover
Sound Design by Neil McKeown
Costume Design by Rachel Dingle
Associate Director – Gavin Harrington-Odedra
Assistant Director – Josh Hinds
Dramaturge – Sara Reimers
Stage Manager – Lorrell Rawlins
Production Manager – Ina Berggren
Company Photographer – Adam Trigg
Production Graphic Designer – Will Beeston
Photo by Adam Trigg
King Henry V marks the Lazarus debut at The Union Theatre.
Thursday 9th July 2015