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A CurtainUp London Review
Henry V

"O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend. The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act. And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!" — Prologue
Henry V
Aaron Sidwell as Henry V
(Photo: Eve Dunlop)
This is a play for Brexit with its derision of our traditional enemy until the twentieth century: The French! And as the height of the Brexit drama raises an interest in politics, the Barn Theatre, a producing house in the West Country's Cirencester mounts its first Shakespeare play, not in the safe comedies of As You Like It or A Midsummer Night's Dream, but with one of the Histories.

Hal Chambers's production of Henry V unashamedly is aimed at a younger audience with a special score composed by Harry Smith and video effects by Benjamin Collins which are immersive. We are in the territory of Game of Thrones. The media sound bites introduce the current political scene of the 100 years' war. What we lose in gaining images of modern warfare and the despatching of the traitors Scrope, Cambridge and Grey by gunshot, is of course the images of the famous victory of the English longbowmen at Agincourt. Despite being vastly outnumbered by the French they succeed with a sloping battlefield on their side.

The Prologue "Oh for a Muse of fire" is delivered as one of the best I have ever seen, by the cast of eight, four men and four women, choreographed in exciting movement to match Shakespeare's wonderfully stirring words. Each actor will take on many roles but suited Aaron Sidwell, whom I last saw and admired in the Green Day musical American Idiot review here, is the young king coming to terms with his new role away from Falstaff's influence in Eastcheap. That partying is portrayed in a flashback to a riotous and drunken clubbing scene. The parallels with modern day Prince Harry are evident.

The Salic Law is explained as to why the French question Henry's claim to France through the female line but the casting of Sarah Waddell in Shakespeare's role of Charles VI King of France as the Queen of France makes a complete nonsense of the French arguments on female succession. I am fine with women playing male roles and vice versa but sex changes of the original role are not always successful.

I was surprised that the cast were obviously miked up in this new theatre space, longer than it is wide, but I did hear every word. Lauren Samuels plays the Boy, and Princess Katherine with superb French, called Kate by Henry and is dressed in a Middleton blue frock Elin Phillips tackles the Archbishop well and Alicia Charles is a female Bardolph whose disrespect of the dead French is severely punished. Costume helps define different roles, a potential minefield with so many trebling and quadrupling parts. Aaron Sidwell's important speeches are well delivered.

The three French nobles would have benefitted from French accents but there is no way the Remain argument can be thought of in Shakespeare's play as a good thing. The yellow stars on a blue sky are an unsubtle allusion to the European flag. I think one of the problems with many productions of Henry V is that the comic relief of Nym, Pistol, Bardolph is unfunny to a modern audience and there is too much of it. The scenes of "a little touch of Harry in the night" work well as this king knows how to talk to the common people.

The modern set of scaffolding and ladders allows for different level playing areas with glimpses of smiling news photo opportunities as visitors are greeted in front of cameras. This production uses back projected titles to convey the scene but lacks the sense of changes of place.

I found the soundscape too relentless with its curious mix of sound effects. During the proposal to Katherine, the sound was like a kettle boiling but I have no idea why! However I wish the Barn every success in bringing self produced theatre to Gloucestershire.

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Henry V by William Shakespeare
Directed by Hal Chambers
Starring: Lauren Samuels, Aaron Sidwell, Adam Sopp, Sarah Waddell, Jonathan Woolf, Matt Ray Brown, Alicia Charles, Elin Phillips
Design: Emily Leonard
Composer: Harry Smith
Sound Designer: Chris Cleal
Lighting Design: Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner
Media: Benjamin Collins
Movement: Kate Webster
Fight Director: Christos Dante
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 01285 648 255
Booking to 22nd June 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th May 2019 evening performance at The Barn Theatre, 5 Beeches Road, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, GL7 1BN (Rail: Cirencester)
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Henry V