Theatre Delicatessen has produced a measured Henry V which draws out many musings on war and what it means to be a leader of men – especially when you’re asking a good chunk of those men to die for you. Notions of honour and patriotism can all-too-easily fall flat for a modern audience, but in Roland Smith’s considered, modernised production the updates gel well with these more old-fashioned ideas. It’s also very funny in places and treads a nice line between giggles and the horror of war.
Philip Desmeules carries a lot of the production as a very human King Henry. In the intimate surroundings of Marylebone Gardens’ basement, every flash of feeling and every twitch of grief can be seen on his face. His verse-speaking is impeccable, especially during the rolling couplets that gee up his men and light up his face. It’s easy to see how his speeches could spur men on to great things. Credit to Smith, too, for bringing the piece to a gentle close and allowing us to see a quieter side to King Henry as he coaxes Princess Katherine (Laura Martin-Simpson) to agree to marry him. Martin-Simpson wrings every drop of comedy from her short scene with her lady-in-waiting (Jessica Guise) as she learns the English words for various body parts. Chris Polick makes an imperious, sneering Dauphin – he does well, as the villain of the piece, to invest the cocky young prince with recognisable qualities that make it much easier to understand his unpleasant bravado. In fact, the whole cast present a group of very nuanced and complex characters, much more so than a clumsier interpretation of the text would allow. This is a subtle production, which meditates on its big themes with a lightness of touch belied by the stomping soldiers and bombs which reverberate around the space.
The space itself is well-chosen; we are ushered into a bunker by barking soldiers who also order us to turn off our phones (orders work – no phones rang!) and settled ourselves on sandbags or bunks, or around a mess table. It is claustrophobic, low-ceilinged, and the sound (Fergus Waldron) is impressive. The noise of falling bombs comes from all around, and builds to a frightening intensity. William Reynolds’ lighting design left me with very tired eyes; spotlights on either side of the space meant that those of us sitting at the sides spent a great deal of the evening with light shining directly into our faces. Squinting aside, the blackouts as bombs came a bit too close were effective, and the cast worked hard to create an atmosphere that we were all in this together. Occasionally, the stamping of one exit would drown the first couple of lines of the next scene, but that’s a minor gripe with a fine production.
The battle of Agincourt was, wisely, played out off-stage, with Waldron’s’ sound design conjuring up the raging battle. In a rather brilliant stroke, Smith has the medics stay in the bunker with us, meaning that as the bombs grow louder and gunfire is all around, we are left with two young medics, restlessly waiting for the first casualties to appear. This is startlingly effective and highly moving; the tension radiating from Zimmy Ryan (as Boy) was palpable, and when the casualties do arrive it hammers home the damage of the war without becoming irritating or over-the-top. There were moments when what was mostly measured become a tad lacking in pace, but Smith keeps these on the right side of self-indulgence. The great pre-battle soliloquys from Henry are well-judged and well-performed. Theatre Delicatessen has a subtle and beguiling production here, and one that is well worth seeing.
Henry V is playing at 35 Marylebone High Street from 22 May to 30 June. For more information see www.theatredelicatessen.co.uk