Henry V is performed by final year students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, yet it’s safe to say that the quality rivals that of a professional production. It’s a brave play to stage, since I can’t help but want to compare it to Grandage’s recent incarnation at the Noel Coward Theatre, starring Jude Law. Aware of this, the creative team behind Henry V have put together a production which successfully stands apart.
To begin with, the casting is unlikely. This heavily male play has been cast with women taking on some of those roles: furthermore, the part of Henry is split between three different actors, one of which is also a woman. The part of Henry appears to undergo an interesting transformation from boy to man in the process of the battle. The crossovers between Ceri-Lyn Cissone, Jordan Renzo and Ben Hall’s different Henrys are smooth, and Hall’s rendition of the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech is powerfully delivered.
The rough and readiness of the aesthetics has me in two minds. This version of Henry V is cut down, so the necessary exposition that this complex play requires is occasionally confused by the multi-role-ing of the actors. In short, King of England, Henry V, makes claim to some land in France, leading to the Battle of Agincourt, in which the French outnumber the English five to one. The actors themselves differentiate between their parts capably, but it’s arguably a design fault that there aren’t any major costume changes, which mark a change in character (most likely because the cast remain on stage at all times). On the other hand, one of the biggest problems I think this play always encounters is staging the Battle of Agincourt. Here, designer Tom Oldham and director Martin Hutson have collaborated brilliantly. The simplistic use of tables and chairs as weapons in some back-and-forth choreography instantly gives the impression that numbers have doubled on stage, and even more so when they are used percussively to create a general atmosphere of menace. Indeed, the use of piano music throughout brings the many strands of this production together and punctuates the scenes with delicacy.
When the actors aren’t within a scene, they retreat to the sides of the stage. This combined with the multi-role-ing has a sense of Brecht about it, which doesn’t seem to have anything to say in terms of subtext, but does make for dynamic watching and exemplifies the cast’s focus and precision. Amongst the cast, everybody seems at home with the language but there are some performers who are particularly expressive, including Florence Roberts as Chorus and Tanya Lattul as The Boy. Added to this, Dominic Spillane successfully brings the humour out of Fluellen’s character, while the merry band Pistol (Kaffe Keating), Bardolph (Alexander Bhat) and Nym (Andre Flynn) have boisterous camaraderie. Furthermore, Andre Flynn’s foppish and foolish Dauphin, the French prince, is both hilarious and ferocious. I’ll admit this is the first production of Henry V I’ve seen in which I’ve been compelled to feel a sense of compassion for the Dauphin, rather than purely caricaturing him as a villain.
This is a sophisticated production from these Guildhall students, who obviously feel at home with Shakespeare’s challenging text. Hutson’s direction deftly manages to show off the dexterity of his actors whilst producing a well-known story with fresh ideas.
Henry V is playing at the Milton Court Studio Theatre until 15 February 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Guildhall School of Music and Drama website.