Rough, ready and yet totally convincing… Ronnie Mulryne reviews the Tread the Boards production running until 23rd April
FROM its first-ever performances in spring or summer 1599 Shakespeare’s Henry V has held the stage down to our own time.
Often seen as a national epic, as in Laurence Olivier’s fabled 1944 film, commissioned by no less a figure than Winston Churchill, or Kenneth Branagh’s more nuanced interpretation of 1989, it has also been claimed as anti-war by productions such as Adrian Noble’s 1984 mud-soaked staging for the RSC.
To their great credit, Tread the Boards plot a course between extremes to allow the play to flower into a deeply felt, thoroughly rehearsed, and utterly compelling account of Shakespeare’s complex text.
The story is far from simple, in scale, motivation or personnel, acknowledging as much via a Chorus to guide the audience and beg forgiveness for the absurdity of trying to contain ‘the very casques/That did affright the air at Agincourt’ within this theatrical ‘cockpit’.
The Attic Theatre is a restricted space, dressed for this show with a rough wooden throne, and tattered red-and-blue hangings. Much of the credit for transporting a willing audience into collusion with the play’s inspired story-telling must go to Dawn Bush’s superb Chorus, at once visionary, acutely self-aware and wittily spoken.
Another first-rate performance came from Edward Manning as Archbishop of Canterbury, tasked with the formidable necessity of bolstering King Henry’s credentials by explaining the Salic law, which, he claims, justifies the king’s French wars.
This was a virtuoso recital which earned the audience’s applause and admiring laughter as Manning nimbly ran over in seconds — at a quick count — 24 foreign names and numberless locations. No doubt the audience thought of more recent and questionable justifications for invasion.
Fluellen (David McCarthy) is a major role straddling the divide between would-be hero and comic fantasist while sustaining, more or less, a Welsh accent, a sort of lesser Falstaff who can find reasons for comparing Monmouth with Macedon, or Alexander the Great with Henry of England, while never losing the audience’s suspended disbelief.
McCarthy and Manning (Bardolph and Nym) are good too, serving with James Tanton (Pistol) as the rough-cast common soldiers by no means enamoured of the privations of warfare.
But this is far from a macho play or production. The women’s parts are beautifully played, by Dru Stephenson (Mistress Quickly and Alice, Princess Katherine’s lady) and Joanna Amaral (Princess Katherine) whether reciting the pathetic account of the death of Falstaff, or engaged in a bout of language-learning that never loses its affectionate side, or in Katherine’s case foxing her husband-to-be at their first meeting or being ‘given away’ to him in a scene that must have brought tears to the eyes of the least sentimental in the audience.
Yet, inevitably, everything turns on the performance of the central role. Here John-Robert Partridge, who also directed the production, is supremely at ease as Henry V in an interpretation which doesn’t flinch from the character’s extremes.
He is attentive to the Salic law’s ‘explanation’; he is measured in his response to the insult of the French ambassador’s gift of tennis balls; but he’s ruthless too in ordering the execution of traitors, of inconvenient prisoners or of his former friend Bardolph.
No audience member can nevertheless mistake the deep sincerity of Partridge’s acknowledgement, as he kneels, of the real victor of Agincourt: ‘O God, thy arm was here …’. This is a performance of the first order, totally engaged, richly varied and convincing in its entirety.
Henry V continues until 23rd April. I suggest you try to see it.