In the year of the London Olympics – and even more noticable in a week where England faced off against France in their opening match of the European Championships – it is perhaps unsurprising that the schedules are crowded with Henry V, including the productions by Propeller and the Globe as well as the BBC’s new screen version. The young company Theatre Delicatessen might have taken a risk in producing yet another version, but the company’s USP of unique, found performance spaces demanded attention, presenting into the bargain a fresh and enthusiastic take on the play.
Theatre Delicatessen work in collaboration with corporate partners to re-energise disused or unconventional spaces, in this case occupying and transforming Marylebone Gardens, the old BBC headquarters. We were met on arrival by a corporal who gathered audience members, called us to attention and criticised our sloppy salutes, and were then passed to a private who led us down back corridors and stairwells, past bunks and uniform stores, into a large bunker environment where squaddies were already sat at a long table playing cards, bunks decorated with photographs lined the walls and sandbags lay scattered. A radio room burbled sections of 1 Henry IV as if news reports; and medical bays and an altar indicated other areas of an army barracks. In this low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, the claustrophobia of the waiting room of war was evocatively recreated, aided by the wonderful soundscape provided by Fergus Waldron and The Lab Collective, where explosions and planes sounded convincingly overhead and music subtly manipulated tone.
The immersiveness of the environment was not total. The charade of the audience’s ‘role’ within proceedings was limited to the pre-show and interval (“you have 15 minutes mess time”), but beyond the fact that audience members were sat comfortably on sandbags or bunks, the performance itself was functionally traverse. Director Roland Smith used the space well, creating multiple smaller areas within the bunker and moving fluidly between scenes. The small office rooms leading off from the main space allowed commanders to emerge at will and, in one powerful instance, served as a makeshift execution room for a French prisoner, a flash seen through a narrow window as gunshots were fired. A large spiral staircase in the centre of the space gave the impression of higher levels, which lent the battle scenes in particular a vulnerable feel – soldiers ran up screaming into the unknown, and the medics left behind listened in terror as explosions grew louder. The ceiling opened up at one end of the room, allowing the company to stage a French propaganda drop with a deafening roar of engines followed by a deluge of anti-English pamphlets falling from the sky; and later, a helicopter was waved down to collect the French princess. The sense of connected spaces usefully turned the events of the play into a slice-of-life representation, a perspective on war rather than its entirety.
If the environment did not quite offer the soldiers-eye view for the audience that the company seemed to want, it did offer intimacy, which became crucial. Zimmy Ryan’s Boy, in particular, built up a close relationship with the audience over successive scenes, and the decision to turn the Boy into a medic left behind while the rest of the soldiers rushed off to battle added further pathos to his execution by two hooded French advance soldiers who crept into the room. The Boy was also responsible for attempting to heal a wounded French soldier, who turned out to be Pistol’s easy capture, the latter pinning down the confused man as he cried out on his gurney. The fact that the bunker best represented itself in these scenes (as opposed to its refiguring elsewhere as tavern, field of battle, court etc.) rendered these scenes the production’s most successful, building up a sense of the soldier as individual, cut off through the messy practicalities of war.
This personal perspective was the production’s priority, made explicit in a moving programme note by Smith that spoke of one of his closest friends, killed in conflict while fighting for peace. What this did mean was that the production was more unproblematically nationalistic than many others. While the Eastcheap crew were drunken louts (increasingly a standard decision), the production remained very firmly on the side of the English, keeping antagonism alive between the two armies at all times and refusing to dwell on French losses, or to problematise Henry’s wooing of Katherine. The emphasis here was on the suffering of the individual soldier caused by war, but didn’t challenge the necessity of that war or the English claims to France.
The cuts primarily reflected this simplification of the play’s issues with nationalism. Gone were Macmorris and Jamy; gone too, more surprisingly, was Fluellen and Pistol’s final encounter as well as the bulk of Fluellen’s argument with Williams. The occlusion of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish narratives was surprising to me, but it did help maintain the moral coherence of the English army. Similarly, Bardolph’s execution was passed over quickly, whereas the execution of the traitors was played out in full. The cuts allowed Philip Desmueles’s Henry freedom to be a passionate and honest king, whose variation was less between tyranny and camaraderie than it was between professionalism and honesty; this was a king led by his heart, but able to manage his facial expressions and reserve as required.
The tensions throughout were well-maintained. Henry and Alexander Guiney’s Montjoy loathed each other from first sight, and Henry gave Montjoy a tennis ball rather than a purse as labour for his pains. Similarly, Neil Connolly’s Governor of Harfleur had to tea his hand away from Henry’s firm grip, storming off in disgust at the loss of his town. More of the tensions came out in the Eastcheap crowd, however, where Connolly’s Nym and Liam Smith’s Pistol came to early blows over Margaret-Ann Bain’s chavvy Hostess, who swigged from a can of special brew before using it as a vase for the flowers offered by Nym. The setting was of Falk.lands-era warfare; thus, the civilians captured something of that period’s St. George’s flag-waving nationalism, while the soldiers wore berets and camouflage. In this setting, the careful management of the traitors and of the common men was particularly obvious, foregrounding a sense of Henry’s absolute authority.
The verse speaking was the production’s disappointment, despite some standout performances; Christopher Tester’s Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, was beautifully articulate, while Liam Smith offered a quiet, dignified French King. Too much was thrown away in favour of conversational accessibility, however; Guiney’s Chorus appeared to be speaking prose rather than verse, setting the scene well but reducing the scenes to their functional rather than rhetorical value.
Yet there was much else to enjoy. The wooing scene between Henry and Laura Martin-Simpson’s Katherine reminded me for the first time ever of Kate and Petruchio’s initial negotiations, particularly as Katherine bit Henry’s tongue as they shared their first (unfashionable) kiss. This lively exchange established a sense of the union of the countries as something desirable for both sides, yet allowed Katherine sufficient agency to dictate her own terms. Elsewhere, Henry’s execution of the traitors prompted a long, specific engagement with Tester’s Scroop, who stood central on the stage while the other traitors kneeled and simply wept as Henry outlined his crimes at great length.
Tester’s excellent Fluellen provided the comic relief, particularly in his forced reconciliation with Chris Polick’s Michael Williams, as Henry forced the two of them to shake hands. The two French women (Martin-Simpson and Jessica Guise as Alice) shared this role in their two brief scenes, but the comedy remained largely contained in favour of celebration of Henry’s victories.
The production was overlong, even with the cuts, yet the fascinating use of space and the thoroughly entertaining performances made for an enjoyable Henry V. I would have liked to have seen a more immersive use made of the set and audience, and a clearer sense of what the production itself was trying to say. Certainly, the Chorus’s final gesture towards the Henry VI trilogy suggested that there was at least a sense of patriotism and national pride being undermined, but this was deferred until after the event as the Chorus cleared the stage, rather than interrupting Henry’s victory. Yet while the play itself may have been partly responsible for maintaining certain attitudes, the space acted as a point of destabilisation of meaning, acting to alert us to our own level of engagement and forcing response. In that sense, this remained an important Henry V.