For the cynics who think the stories of Shakespeare have had their time and bear no relevance to our day to day lives, top up your oyster card and skip down to the Old Red Lion Theatre for a royal awakening.
Co-artistic director Henry Filloux-Bennett’s Henry Vis a clever and at times witty production that stands proud and sets itself apart from the sudden rush of portrayals of this story of war. At 110 minutes long, it is not the fullest take on Prince Hal’s, but it is clear from the outset that this production has a concept that drives the heart of the piece: in Filloux-Bennett’s take, Henry V is presented in the early and later stages of the play in the skin of former Labour leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair. During the war moments, the role switches hands and Henry V is played more like a corporal going into battle in Iraq.
Jack Morris’s Henry V – with a Labour party mug in hand – was precise, much like his influence, and had a great clarity and presentation of Shakespeare’s language. Mark Field’s fighter Henry V was solid and his physical presentation in line with the concept was clear. Recent Mountview graduate Henry Regan showed strength in all of his roles, most notably as Canterbury, bringing humour when humour was due. Steve Fortune put the men amongst the boys, holding a great presence throughout and bringing authority to the words of Charles VI. Nicholas Kime had great commitment to his many roles, particularly bringing a quaint campness to Dauphin. Christine Oram held the role of chorus – in addition to other roles – well; a sense of gossiping neighbour was certainly felt in Oram’s solo chorus work.
Coinciding with The Revenger’s Tragedy in the Old Red Lion’s rep season, Mike Lees’s set was simple and, much like Filloux-Bennett’s dramatic ideas, left a lot to the imagination. Ella Wahlström’s sound design was similar to her work for a previous Old Red Lion production, Mercury Fur: hauntingly loud at times, sending a real chill down the spine. Emil Charlaff’s video designs onto dropped down flat screens were clever – one particular credit for the cringey Blair and Bush romance video.
My only snag with this production was the multiple casting of Henry V. I understand the idea that Tony Blair wouldn’t have been on the front line of battle, but there might have been an opportunity for the Blair-type figure to still be present in the war scenes and, much like he did during the Iraq war, jeer and rally the troops. This is a great production for audiences who are new to Shakespeare and hold old-fashioned preconceptions. This 21st century take has a great resonance for a modern audience who would have lived through this war but perhaps not really have known what went on. With that in mind, transferring the central figure’s baton between two actors without a very clear familiarity to the audience might leave an emerging audience puzzled.
However, this is a very skilful production. Henry Filloux-Bennett’s vision may or may not have been inspired by similar Iraq war interpretations done in the past, but this one for some reason has a bit more cheek, a bit more knowledge and a bit more of “the fight isn’t over yet”.
Henry V plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre in rep with The Revenger’s Tragedy until Saturday 29 September. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.