Luke Rollason’s production of Henry V is the most entertaining theatrical experience that money can currently buy in Oxford. Quite different to the usual garden play that serenely takes place by the Worcester College lake every summer, this winter production transports its audience from the English courts to the muddy battle fields of Agincourt and back again, travelling through the college and its gardens. This is not a production for the faint-hearted (or those with an aversion to leeks), but if you like your theatre full-blooded, interactive, and engaging, then this is the play for you.
Henry V is the Shakespeare play that perhaps best lends itself to this kind of staging (indeed, Creation Theatre attempted a similar production last year). Traditionally, it is left to the Chorus to conjure up the images required by the multiple scene changes and chaotic battle scenes. When you have the entirety of a college’s grounds at your disposal, however, the whole experience becomes more visceral as you traipse after Henry and his army through the mud, and listen to his battle plans whilst sitting in a chapel as his council. I particularly enjoyed the scenarios played out in unexpected places whilst the audience were on the move – whilst walking back to England after the battle you witness the burial rites for the English fallen – which helped to sustain the atmosphere of the play, rather than feeling like you were merely relocating to a new stage to watch a different scene.
I was expecting the production to be plagued by the problem of being unable to hear the actors whilst outside (as has nearly every outdoor play I have seen). Thankfully this was skilfully avoided, but the main logistical problems arose in the scenes in the chapel. The naturally resonant acoustic meant that in the opening scenes many of the subtleties of the script were lost (establishment of the relationship between Pistol, Nym and Bardolph was unfortunately lost amidst a fight scene that prevented much from being heard), and it was initially difficult to see the actors when crowded into the chapel as a group.
However, these are minor faults that are easily remedied by moving the audience further into the chapel and speaking slightly slower indoors; the rest of the play was flawless in both its execution and presentation. With outstanding performances from the entire cast, the alternating humour and tragedy in Shakespeare’s original script was brought to the fore (complemented by both additional comic asides and judicious editing). This is not Shakespeare’s most subtle text and its physicality, whether humorous or pathetic, was capitalised upon, from Leo Suter’s cross-dressing turn as Alice to the brutal murder of Bardolph (Tom Dowling). The intense physical drama was well-placed in an interpretation that attempts to immerse the audience in the sights, smells, and sounds of battle: the final humiliation of Pistol and murder of the unnamed French soldier proved so effective that they caused some audience members to avert their gaze.
I would love to see how this kind of interactive staging works with Shakespeare’s other plays – Macbeth, Henry IV and Richard III immediately springing to mind as obvious candidates for future enterprises. I could wax lyrical about the adaptation of the Chorus and surprising appearance of brioche, but I don’t want to give spoilers as I hope everyone will go and buy a ticket. This is the kind of ambitious theatre that Oxford needs and, if anything, future productions could push for even more audience interactivity and immersion to expand the boundaries of theatre experience a little further. Don’t miss it.