Henry V could not have graced the stage at a more poignant or apt time. Living in a society riddled with the drama of Brexit and surrounded by the even more consuming drama of the Euros tournament, Merely Theatre shakes up Shakespeare with their newest production.
The actors, donned in red English football jerseys, open the production with an invigorating warm up as they introduce the events of the play; Henry’s quest to conquer France. Enter the French characters who are helpfully dressed in blue French jerseys. At first, the costume design seems a thoughtless, amateur decision, but as the play progresses and the same actors portray both English and French monarchs and soldiers, the differentiating costume is openly welcomed by the audience.
Not only does it add a light-hearted quality to Henry’s game-like quest for glory, but it also offers a comment on Britain’s current political turmoil; the ostensible, colour-coded separation between the English and French materialise the divide so many are feeling post-Brexit. It is a play which heralds Henry V as an ambitious and worthy leader, conquering foreign lands to grow the wealth and power of the English. But unlike Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, a London audience today would question this, wondering if it was this very example of brawn and bravery that furthered the English reputation of drive towards colonialism. A reputation which has come under much scrutiny after the recent Brexit vote.
Nevertheless, the play is electrified with humour which successfully engages the audience in what can sometimes be seen as a tedious history. In what is the most entertaining scene, Emmy Rose, playing Katherine of France, attempts to learn English. Spouting grossly mispronounced versions of words such as ‘fingers’ and ‘arm’, Katherine’s never-ending eagerness is met with grateful hilarity from the audience. Rose appears in four roles in this production, three of them being male characters, but she is able to carry each character with a newfound sense of charm and wit. Thanks to Director Scott Ellis, character changes are surprisingly swift and, marked by costume changes such as the jerseys, easily understandable. Sadly, Rose fell ill during the performance but all credit is due to her fellow cast members who rallied around her and together they continued the performance admirably.
Special mention is also due to the lighting designer, Christopher Nairne, who created an ethereal night-time scene in anticipation of the eve of battle.
The ethics behind Merely Theatre are inspiring for forward-thinking theatre makers; they use a company of ten actors with an equal gender split. For every show, male and female actors, or ‘twins’, train for each part so that equal male and female actors are able to play the roles. This results in endless possible combinations of gender blind casting, which is encouraging to see as young theatre makers and goers.
This production of Henry V is dripping with energy and enthusiasm, it sweeps the audience away on an epic adventure, and cracks a few jokes on its way.
Henry V is playing Southwark Playhouse for one show on July 2. For more information and tickets to other productions at Southwark Playhouse, see their website.