HENRY V
Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, nr. Newbury
Opened 13 May, 1997

Garden shows are more often than not the theatrical equivalent of picnics light affairs tailored to the enjoyment of a summer evening out of doors. As far as Shakespeare goes, one would expect one of the festive comedies, or just possibly a problem play or a late romance. In short, such a staging of Henry V is a little out of the ordinary.

Edward Hall's production at the Watermill is a curate's egg in this respect. After beginning in the auditorium (with seating on all four sides of the playing area, although the action is staged primarily towards the main bank), the all-male cast shepherd the audience outside to "France", where the building's frontage serves as the walls of Harfleur. After the interval, the space to the rear of the mill is used to great effect, as Princess Katharine of France performs her toilette directly beside the mill-race and a former Metropolitan Police horse makes a cameo appearance as the Dauphin's mount. Rather perplexing, then, that we should re-enter the theatre for the battle of Agincourt itself.

Equally mystifying is the choice of music: during the interval of this English nationalistic play, the cast perform a brief set of Irish folk numbers, and the English troops make their first entrance and final exit singing The Pogues' "A Pair Of Brown Eyes". Christopher Myles, too, delivers Nym's lines in the northside Dublin drawl of Boyzone's Ronan Keating, although when playing the Princess's maid Alice he bombards us with some magnificent French patter. Robert Horwell is likewise irrepressible as Pistol, and even more so in the interval.

This is a modern-dress production, with the troops kitted out in urban camouflage and wielding long-handled police batons, and the sounds of battle augmented by of all things a didgeridoo. Some of the gimmicks with which the show is laden work nicely, some only partially, some such as the tipping from the gallery onto the stage of a couple of bushels of tennis balls are utterly pointless.

Jamie Glover's profile is rising all the time, and he brings a magnificently rich voice to the part of Henry. His performance, however, is deeply unsympathetic, culminating in the "little touch of Harry in the night" scene which serves in fact to emphasise this king's lack of common touch; with a fanatical glint never far from his eye, Henry's pieties sound at times like the hollow utterances of a bogus cult leader. Whether this feeling of constant calculation is attributable to the character or the actor is difficult to tell, but it works diametrically against the prevailing atmosphere that this production atrocities of war, pangs of kingly conscience and all is at bottom a bit of a lark.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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