“This is Henry V as you’ve never seen it before”, announces the programme for Creation Theatre’s latest Summer Shakespeare production. And love it or hate it, the production certainly lives up to this promise. Bursting with humour, energy, and quite a few tennis balls, this Henry V was quite unlike anything I have previously experienced.
Having had a particularly difficult summer last year due to excessively wet weather, this year’s production is staged in Oxford Castle. Not only is this an appropriately atmospheric setting for Shakespeare’s historical play about royalty, loyalty, and honour, but it allowed for the use of three separate outdoor stages acting as the English court, French court, and battlefield. Those who love Henry V for its dynamic battle scenes will not be disappointed by Henry’s ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech (played by Morgan Philpott), delivered from atop the castle mound, or the scenes at Agincourt played out on the grass lawn before the whole audience returns to the amphitheater that becomes Henry’s court. In an age where the Elizabethan stage did not use scenery, the Prologue asks ‘Can this cock-pit hold The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?’ Today, the Oxford Castle quarters certainly provided ample space to contain two countries.
This innovative use of space was complemented by the manner in which the significantly scaled down cast was accommodated. With only three actors (Rhys King, Morgan Philpott, and Christopher York), finding substitutes for the significant numbers of absent cast members immediately demands an inventive solution. Besides including calling upon audience members to play certain characters, some abridging of scenes, and representing generals with moustaches on sticks, the sheer versatility of the actors involved was admirable with each sometimes playing up to three roles in a single scene.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the production, however, was its humour. Henry V has lent itself to multiple interpretations, from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film saluting the patriotic, to the contemporary setting of the 2003 National Theatre production highlighting the folly of the Iraq war. In 2011-2012 the all-male Propellor Theatre Company ran a highly modern Henry V that embraced elements of the comic, particularly with Karl Davies’ Catherine of France, but I have yet to see another production that places comedy in so central a position. Henry’s battle speeches retained their profundity, exploring the horror of war, the moral burden of the crown, and Henry’s mediation of the characteristics that produce a ‘good’ man or a ‘good’ king, but they were significantly counterbalanced by comic turns from all three members of the cast. While this tended to err more on the side of (sometimes lewd) bawdy slapstick than subtlety, there was nothing, arguably, unsupported by Shakespeare’s script. Most memorable of these scenes was that of Catherine (Rhys King) being taught English by her maid Alice (Christopher York). By setting the women’s scenes in French and the men’s in English, Shakespeare had already created a divide between the harsh, battle-strewn world of the male and the more frivolous feminine, concerned with romance and not morality or war. Just as much as there are examples of strong female characters in Shakespeare’s works (for example Portia acting as Balthazar in The Merchant of Venice), there are also moments that remind of us of the more subservient role women often had in Elizabethan society (for example the taming of Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew). Henry’s Catherine is constantly reminded of her role to secure political gains through marriage, not least in her consenting to marry Henry if it is the will of her father in the final scene. The females are something of the comic aside in Henry V – no doubt Elizabethan audiences would have been most amused by the dainty Catherine cursing on stage (playing on the similarity in sound of the English words for ‘foot’ and ‘gown’ to the French ‘foutre’ and ‘con’). By not allowing for the serious to intermingle with the comic (as it does in the wooing scene from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film), this production served to emphasise this divide, throwing a subtle light onto this issue through highly unsubtle means.
Although this Henry V with its reduced cast and entirely dissolved fourth wall may not be to all tastes, it is one that broadens interpretational boundaries and will no doubt stick in the mind for quite some time. In the face of increased arts cuts, this is exactly the kind of innovative production that is needed to keep British theatre alive and sustainable.
For more information about Creation Theatre or to book tickets, please visit their website.