Once more unto the breach as company unleashes dogs of war
It is appropriate in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One to bring Henry V to the stage.
This is Shakespeare’s portrait of a warrior king, a man who is as hard as nails, who orders the execution of one of his best friends and the killing of prisoners of war.
It charts Henry’s journey from profiligate prince, Harry to his friends, to reverred majesty. Remind you of anyone? It should.
Though Prince Harry may never be king, this is more his story than that of his older brother William.
The modern reference is well and truly nailed in war scenes that could have come from Iraq or Afghanistan.
There is no fancy dressing in director Elizabeth Freestone’s handling of the epic – it is rough, raw and emotionally charged.
Not for her are flying, colourful pennants and men in shining armour. Women fight cheek by jowl with men – sporting combat gear and bloodied wounds.
Her ‘knights’ are dressed in the bovver boots, sharp suits and narrow ties of the skin-head – the violence is palpable in every sinew – including the shaven-headed Katharine played in spitting, snarling, hell-cat mode by Heledd Gwynn. She is no one’s petticoated, ringleted pet.
The call to arms of ‘Once more unto the breach’ is more akin to a thug’s gangland roar than a rallying cry of a chivalrous courtier sticking to the rules of engagment.
Freestone’s vision is of every war – it is nasty, violent, painful and lawless whether it is fought in heraldic tabards and chain mail on the green fields of Harfleur, or in khaki in the muddy fields of Flanders or Doc Martens and combat trousers in the deserts of the Middle East.
They are provoked by the same thing – in Henry V’s case his authority is mocked and anger provoked by the sending to him by the French of tennis balls – in the same way but on a much bigger scale as the flying of planes into the Twin Towers in New York provoked a president to rally his country’s troops to annihilate the Taliban.
War’s intrigue and negotiations are also played out.
It also states that war is a crying shame and waste of life – for what is gained from it?
Are boys turned into men, people conquered or revenge wrought and egos restored? The answer, largely, is no. In fact, nations and individuals are the poorer for it.
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory present Henry V on a series of metal platforms – anonymous and cold.
The effects for the battle scenes – all explosions and flashing lights – are perfect. They convey the confusion and violence of conflict without resorting to the gore – which is often spoken of.
Performances in the ensemble piece are knockout – from Ben Hall’s Hal – whose conscience weighs heavier than chain mail – to Chris Donnelly’s devil-may-care Pistol.
Melody Brown changes from bridal gown to combat gear to play the comely, comic Mistress Quickly, to the dour, dutiful Gower.
Joanne Howarth brings gravitas as the narrator and the Duke of Burgundy and keeps the action moving.
Some of the best scenes are played between Hall and Gwynn – with the last scenes of appeasement, appeal, love and hate packing an emotional punch.
All’s fair in love and war – says the proverb – this production begs to differ.
Both are a bloody, exhausting battlefield.
Henry V runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until Saturday October 13. Performances are: Wednesday October 10 at 7.30pm; Thursday October 11 at 1.30pm and 7pm; Friday October 12 at 7.30pm and Saturday October 13 at 2.30pm and 7.30pm