FOR A fringe theatre company to stage Henry V, regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays, is always going to be a challenge, especially when your next door neighbours are the RSC. Let’s add the director also playing the title role-a recipe for disaster?
Not a bit of it. Rarely have I seen Shakespeare performed so accessibly.
From the moment Dawn Bush, our guide and chorus beams an engaging smile and audibly wishes ‘Oh for a muse of fire’ the Attic Theatre disappears and the audience is transported to an England where a prince has become a King who has inherited a very dangerous throne -one, where he must preside over an England at war with itself.
The complexity of the early scenes is so well handled by all the players, the audience is not preached too or shouted at; nor do they have to spend ten minutes tuning in to the language as the actors indulge in the richness of the text.
No, the words are delivered with clarity, respect but most importantly as interesting conversation. Consequently the plot is clear, as are the characters and where they stand in the pecking orders of the plot and intrigue.
John- Robert Partridge as Henry makes a charismatic monarch, charming all he comes into contact with – a gentle and intelligent warrior. So when our Harry is insulted by the French Dauphin and chooses to take England to war against France; who could resist marching beside him?
The action moves on to Harfleur and Agincourt where the famous battles are fought just feet in front of us with energy and imagination. These are cleverly interspersed with a series of vignettes between the fighting where bawdiness, pride and fear are common bedfellows on both sides.
The French far outnumbered the English and as such did not really contemplate losing but rather dispatch their Herald (Ashleigh Dickinson) to offer financial terms for Henry’s surrender at various intervals. But of course our leader calls for ‘Once more into the breach’ and the whole audience inwardly cry’s out for ‘England, Harry and Saint George’.
When the Herald comes to call for a final time it is to tell Henry that he has won the day and asks permission for the French to remove their dead from the battlefield. The body count being 20 Frenchman for every Englishman. Stirring stuff indeed.
After the fighting we see a much gentler Henry as he woos his French bride to be Princess Katherine (beautifully played by Joanne Amaral)
Overall there is not a weak link or moment in this production and the cross gender blindness and multi-role playing is joyously oblivious and seamless with more costume changes than the cat walk at London Fashion week.
Technically the period music and battle soundtrack along with excellent staging and lighting add harmonious dimensions.
Special mentions to Edward Manning as the King of France, David McCarthy as Captain Fluellen and James Tanton as Pistol and one more touch of the cap to the very talented Mr Partridge on both his direction and truly royal performance.
Tread the Boards is a fringe company at the very top of its game and Stratford should be as proud to have them. The show runs at The Attic till the end of April.