A COUPLE of years ago at Grosvenor Park (and indoors at Storyhouse), director Loveday Ingram brought us a Julius Caesar that very boldly presented the title role as a thinly disguised Donald Trump, pledging to Make Rome Great Again. It was a parallel that worked extraordinarily well on so many levels and really made the play feel urgent and relevant.
Once again aiming for a contemporary edge on Shakespeare, this season she brings us a modern day Henry V. Here England has declared war on a France that has exchanged its Tricolour for the European Union flag. The inference is obvious but this Brextian take on the story is an awkward fit. Certainly the play has strong themes about the lines between national pride and jingoism, and strong leadership and self-interest, but there is only so far you can take the idea before it feels uncomfortably shoehorned in.
Ingram creates a powerful beginning by dividing the lines for the Chorus among the supporting cast members. Emerging from the audience, the actors declaim this opening text as they step down to take their places in the centre of the park’s ‘Wooden O’. Among what follows there are some very committed performances from the ensemble, although vocal projection is uneven. Joseph Millson in particular is a strong casting choice for Henry, and he pulls it off with great charisma. Sadly though, much of his dialogue fails to reach the terraces, and in some of the pivotal scenes in which he begins to question his own actions the text is lost entirely, unable to compete with the blustery winds of a Cestrian summer.
Millson does bring real weight to some of Henry’s big speeches, in particular those at Harfleur and Agincourt, one of which is delivered from atop a ladder, where he is held aloft to rally his troops.
The action scenes are very well choreographed and executed, the stage filled with noise and energy and this is where the open air setting really adds atmosphere to the work. There is also much good comic mileage to be made from the scenes with Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, and this is mined for all its worth by Samuel Collings, Jessica Dives and Mitesh Soni.
The final act with Henry’s proposal to Katherine can often appear incongruous. Here it feels like an epilogue, and is of course wound up with the reappearance of the chorus. They close the play as it began in a part divided among a handful of actors. This is a thoughtful and energetic reading of Shakespeare’s history which battles valiantly against the elements and, occasionally, its directorial concept.
Henry V continues in repertory at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre until 25th August.