Review – Henry V – Southwark Playhouse

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Henry V in 90 minutes!” Is it really possible? Well, it’s what the ad for the Henry V at the Southwark Playhouse promised. I’m pretty suspicious in general of the history plays as being rather dry, and Shakespeare on a weeknight is something I avoid now that I’m having to get up so early. But Henry V in 90 minutes? Not only did that mean that I could get through a play that I might normally avoid without fear of losing the will to live mid-show, it also meant I could squeeze in a play on a weeknight and not lose my precious (and continued-employment-enabling) beauty sleep. I signed up immediately.

To be honest, I actually have a soft spot for Henry V, since I enjoyed the Kenneth Branagh film, but I’d seen it so long ago I’d pretty much forgotten most of it. And I’m no student of English history. It had all been muddled in my mind as “young English guy invades France, marries cute French girl.” I’d even seen an article on Agincourt in the New York Times in the last year that had talked about how it was British longbow power that had made the victory possible, aided by some truly amazing mud and a wee bit of fudging number-wise in terms of the balance of forces on each side, but it hadn’t registered that this had anything to do with Henry V “a play by Shakespeare.” But it came back to me in the theater. We’d been given passes as we collected our tickets, designating us as English (red, my favorite color) or French (blue), but I didn’t realize that this was going to be anything other than Ourn versus Yourn until I walked into the theater. Two long walls and one short one had seats with blue cushions demarcating them as French; one short wall at the back was us, red, “The English.” We were not just going to be cheering and jeering at each other from across a playing field (er, Channel); we were going to be huddling in our tininess while the mass of the French stared us down. My goodness. Henry wanted US to invade THAT?

The trope of this show (if you haven’t picked it up already) is of a sporting match. The “chorus” (a girl in a yellow jersey with “chorus” on the back – Anna McSweeney) starts out rolling the dice and moving games pieces on a board in the middle of the stage; the English (Gloucester – Eric MacLennan, Exeter – Simon Tierney, and Henry – Tom Greaves)* show up in red jerseys (with their names on the back) over white rugby-type shirts, white shorts, white knee socks, and white court shoes. This white uniform was standard for all of the characters in the show, and changes were effected by switching jerseys; the presence of the names on the back making it easy to tell who was who. The French, of course, are in blue, but the actors (except for Henry, who doesn’t change) went fairly fluidly between sides as necessary.

The movement of this show is actually quite important to how it works; with the teams facing off against each other, marching around “the field” as if they were walking onto the grounds of a stadium to thumping techno. Shots are fired with water pistols; golden balls (echoing both the tennis balls the Dauphin insultingly gives Henry in the first act, but also somehow the Snitch in a Quidditch match) bounce around, knocking down fortresses; the English paddle over the Channel (painted on the floor) in plastic crates. The whole thing is really a lot of fun, and I have to say, as Henry exhorted us to be of good heart on St Crispin’s day, as we poor few English huddled against the back wall with the might of the French staring back at us, I really couldn’t help but feel the power of his words – the powers of the Bard, but also the magic of a really good speaker encouraging his men – his team – to stand together against impossible odds. Suddenly, Agincourt meant something to me, and I felt like I understood a little bit of what it meant to be proud to be English, and what this battle must have meant to them in those days, and maybe even now: an amazing accomplishment made possible not just by the person who dreamed it, but by the people he called upon to do it with him. I was utterly shocked when, after the battle scene, with so much red and blue dead on the floor, the French messenger (Fiona Watson, uniformly good) came to pronounce that England had won the day; but I can only imagine it was just as much as a shock, and a thrill, for the people there to know they did not have to fight anymore.

Now, the acting really wasn’t as sharp as it could have been, and for any purists the amount of cut script had to be sacrilege, but all in all, I found this an enjoyable show. It actually made me feel something new and different, and succeeded in its silliness in bringing the play to life (though the bar stool I sat in put my leg to sleep; avoid them if possible). With tickets running a mere £13 if you bought them early (up to £18 now) and the whole evening done by 9:30, this show is decidedly worth the effort – and I found it far more engaging than the RSC show I’d seen just a week before (Dunsinane) and (in retrospect) more memorable than the much sharper Measure for Measure I saw the next night at the Almeida. I chalk this one up as a win.

* I’m not entirely sure which actors were in this scene as so much of it was cut and I didn’t write down the names on the back of the jerseys, but I think that’s who was there.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 11th, 2010. Henry V continues through March 20th. For a host of other reviews, see UpTheWestEnd.com.)

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One Response to “Review – Henry V – Southwark Playhouse”

  1. Review – Jude Law’s Henry V – Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] seen it done in a bunker space where the fear of war had me feeling edgy and nervous, and as a sporting match that had me cheering and laughing, but this version, dry and nerveless, has no reason to exist […]

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