As the nation roils amongst a nonsensical A-Levels algorithm and poetry is to be dropped from the essential study of English Literature, get your family down to the Maltings Festival to celebrate the Bard who defines Britain’s aesthetic soul in this entertaining and youthful version of Henry V – a good day out for Shakespeare newcomers and veterans alike.
Mathew Parker’s production locates itself firmly in the coming of age aspects of this history – which shows Prince Hal of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2; having matured from boy to man, self-indulgent prince to noble king. With a young, multi-rolling cast, Parker has devised a meta-theatrical conceit of a school production of Shakespeare’s play and introduces (and reassures) with considerable detail about how social distancing is being observed. As live theatre returns, I suspect the audience will take comfort in the safety procedures being pointed out with wit, but caution, as it can never be far from the audience’s minds. I’m not convinced the school play device is an entirely necessary choice, but the youthful and talented cast, together with the comic drive of this production, make an excellent and accessible entree for young people to Shakespeare and the conceit adds a level of gaiety consistent with an outdoor festival designed to be fun.
Parker has shortened the play to a 90-minute experience which runs straight through without an interval. He has chosen to amp up the comedy and deliver big choreographed battle scenes with an affecting use of Stormzy’s ‘Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown’ (a line from Henry IV) along with other pop songs. Whilst some of the more poetic subtleties about death and power, as well as the character development, of the full 5-act play are sacrificed to keep the run-time within 1.5 hours, the instinct to entertain above all else is the right one for an outdoor summer festival during a global pandemic.
Recent RADA graduate Mara Allen takes the titular role and shows great energy, commitment and range in a highly physical and masterful vocal performance. With heavy doses of choreography and clever and resonant use of stomping, the cast who serve as key characters and ensemble show an exciting physicality in their enactment.
Whilst Parker went all out for as much light-hearted humour as possible with his cuts excising much drama and exposition in order to shift the balance towards, but not entirely, to comedy, I found his rendition of the famous French scene between the royal Katherine (Rachel Fenwick), who is betrothed to Henry and contemplating what a wedding night with the Prince might entail, and her maid Alice (Paula Gilmour) odd in that the normally hilarious and profoundly rude scene appeared to be sanitised and thus lost much of its punch. Seeing as fellow Maltings production of The Merry Wives of Windsor pulled no punches with its ribaldry at 6 pm, I’m not sure why a duet built on sexual innuendo and mispronunciation was given a distinctly G rating in its pre-watershed slot?
This is a strong and fun production but I felt it was a missed opportunity by confining the action to the built platform when there is a wondrous field of the Roman site in the Verulamium Park at its disposal. In one of the most revered prologues written, we are asked:
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
I find it slightly baffling that with a really strong hint of the ‘vasty fields of France’ in the background that Parker and his set designer, Simon Nicholas, would use only an ‘unworthy scaffold’ to tell the story. Even with a cast of 10 playing more than 40 characters, and with the promise of all actors being at least a metre apart, somehow the action felt indeed crammed on the stage. The affecting choreography and sense of time, especially during the musical montages, would have benefited from the gift of depth of field that the literal fields surrounding the stage offered. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen the rear wall of the set removed to show the battlefield space behind rather than blocked with a bland white panel. It’s nonetheless commendable to address both social distancing and the demands of an outdoor festival at what was likely short notice of the production. As such, this show is a triumph of problem-solving and jolly good entertainment to boot. Should the creative team have the opportunity to take a breath, it would be even better if they could leverage the sympathetic strength of their setting for further impact but nonetheless the Maltings’ Henry V is well worth its ticket price!
Review by Mary Beer
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