Review – Henry V, Headlong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th March 2023

Henry VWasn’t it Bonnie Tyler who said, I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night; he’s gotta be strong, and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight? I think it was. And if there’s one thing Britain could do with right now, it’s a national hero. Someone to lead us once more into the breach, someone to get their hands dirty in the fight scenes. Someone to stir our desires, raise our spirits, smack our heads together and put us back on the right route. We need a King Harry!

Oliver JohnstoneAnd Headlong, in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe, the Leeds Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, have done their darndest to give us one, in the form of Oliver Johnstone as the eponymous warrior King. But this King Henry is no straightforward military machine. He’s a complex soul. Quirkily opening with a scene from Act IV of Henry IV Part II, we see that he’s hungry for power, taking the crown off his father before he’s even dead; but he’s also riddled with self-doubt. In a fascinating reading of the role, every time the king makes a great decision or rallies the troops with a stirring speech, afterwards, he doubles up in internal agonies.

Oliver JohnstoneHis famous breach speech at the siege of Harfleur starts with him cowering on the floor, slowly daring to build in confidence as his words hit home. Not so much whooping up his fighting men, he’s actually using the speech to bestow strength on himself. It’s only when the French are fully defeated, and he’s taken the land he wants, that he relaxes – to an extent; his self-doubt is replaced with a short temper and an even shorter fuse. Normally, that final scene where he woos Katherine is treated as light relief and an insight into the more human aspect of Henry’s personality. Not in this production. He’s as snappy as a crocodile that’s just been given bad news.

CompanyBut what am I doing, starting at the end? Let’s go back to the beginning. Holly Race Roughan’s production has sliced away many of the unnecessary fripperies, to bring us a Henry V that’s lean, direct, clear and in your face. None of this muse of fire nonsense, that’s out; no Archbishops and bishops nattering on the sidelines. Instead, it concentrates on the action, the motives, and the arguments. A few words with his brothers and his uncle and it’s straight in with the French Ambassadors and the mocking tennis balls. To help us keep up with this extremely pacey production, the cast frequently announce the change of scene and tell us which characters they are playing. Brecht would have loved it. And it’s a simple device that works incredibly well. Traditionally Henry V has been considered the most patriotic of plays, right down to Churchill using Lord Olivier’s famous performance in the 1944 film for wartime propaganda purposes. This production excels at bringing out the question of responsibility in war, and the consequences of marching into other countries’ territory – it reveals the nationalistic pettiness that can have so much influence on people’s behaviour.

Georgia FrostYou may have gathered that if you’re a Shakespeare purist, this is probably not the production for you. I’m not sure that the immortal bard would have expected the new King to be greeted with a rousing chorus of God Save Our Gracious King, nor would Pistol have called Fluellen a Welsh C*nt. Nor is it that likely that the Dauphin and Orleans would have had such a – shall we say – close bromance. But Shakespeare’s big and strong enough to look after himself; he’s been performed for the last four hundred years, and he’ll certainly be performed for the next four hundred. So no need to get anxious on his behalf.

Oliver Johnstone and Dharmesh PatelMoi Tran’s simple set consists of two rows of chairs either side of the stage that the cast occupy whilst they’re not actually involved in a scene, in front of a big green ruffled curtain that occasionally rises to reveal a nicely antiqued mirror wall, perfect for the King’s soul-searching speeches. It’s a deliberately small and plain set; you can look around the back and the sides to see the backstage gubbins and people occasionally walking around. It adds to the sense of performance right here right now – tonight, in this very theatre, in front of this very audience, ten people have come together to tell the story of Henry V. It’s up to us to interpret what we see and let our imaginations run riot within the wooden O. It’s what the Chorus would have wanted, if his opening speech had been kept. The artificiality of the presentation is highlighted in the very final scene – again, not written by Shakespeare – which brings the story fully into 21st century Britain. It involves an official, someone trying to take British Citizenship, and a vacuum cleaner. I’ll say no more.

Oliver JohnstoneThe whole show is extremely slickly presented and performed by an excellent ensemble who dovetail beautifully into their respective roles and scenes. Oliver Johnstone is excellent as Henry, at times meek and uncertain, at others bombastic and cruel. He gives a great reading of the text – clear, emotional and nuanced; in the scene, for example, where he realises he has been betrayed by his friend Scroop, he treads the finest of lines between fury and pure sadness. He’s really going to miss his old buddy – but it won’t stop him from choking him to death.

Oliver Johnstone and Josephine CalliesHelena Lymbery is outstanding as King Henry IV, and Henry’s uncle Exeter – a true support and enforcer who will stand for no nonsense. I really enjoyed the performance by Jon Furlong as Bardolph – if there is one stand-out moment of the play it’s probably the end of Act One and the death of Bardolph; a superb piece of theatricality. Joshua Griffin is great as the belligerent Fluellen, and Eleanor Henderson is also terrific as the obnoxiously entitled Prince Louis. And Geoffrey Lumb beautifully conveys the range of emotions faced by the King of France as he at first defends his country but then realises when he has been beaten. But the whole cast do a first rate job of clearly, succinctly, and punchily bringing this 16th century play to life. The show continues in the Royal auditorium until 18th March.

Production photos by Ant Robling

Five Alive Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2019

Richard IIIIt was five years ago that we saw that disastrous production of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Martin Freeman. I say disastrous; it was from the angle of our seats, which were the (relatively expensive) ones on stage “to get closer to the action” – but in fact our view of the action was so totally interrupted by the set that we may as well have been listening to a radio play. Never again will I fall for the “get a seat on the set” gimmick – it’s way too risky.

So nebulous was our memory of that show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went into this production of Richard III thinking it was the first time I’d ever seen it – and, to all intents and purposes, it was. Its not a play with which I’m particularly familiar, but that’s definitely been my loss all these years. Richard III (the character) combines the ambition of Lady Macbeth with the ruthlessness of Iago and the bloodlust of Titus Andronicus. He’s the archetypal nasty piece of work but what a joy it is to watch him scheme and slime his way around a stage.

Although Richard III only ruled from 1483-85, he certainly left his mark on the annals of history. I’m no expert, but I believe he wasn’t quite as bad a chap as popular culture would have us believe. Shakespeare offers us the Princes in the Tower episode as just one incident in a life of murderous manipulation, and the play is, basically, an observation of the motives and modus operandi of a Machiavellian maniac. That’s what makes it so enjoyable! We cower at his evil but giggle at how he overshares his total lack of shame.

John Haidar’s production for Headlong, in association with the Bristol Old Vic, Alexandra Palace, Oxford Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, has just finished its tour last week in Northampton, and – no buts about it – it was an absolute triumph. Plantagenet though the king may be, there is a distinct modern feel to the production, with smart suits and jackets/turtle necks combos the order of the day; Richard himself sports a set of callipers which I doubt would have been available at the end of the fifteenth century. Rather than get bogged down in its language – apparently, uncut, it’s the longest Shakespeare play apart from Hamlet – the production concentrated on vivid characterisation, striking visual and sound effects, and creative use of a row of mirror doors surrounding the back of the stage. Feydeau would have been fuming with envy. The cuts and re-arrangements of the play (don’t expect it to start with Now is the Winter of our Discontent) work incredibly well to give it a fast pace and a clear vision.

The cast was superb throughout, but I have to mention three particular performances that stood out for me. There’s a gloriously elegant performance by Stefan Adegbola as Buckingham; immaculately presented as the courtier supreme, politely attending on the whim of his masters – loyal of course, but always with an ear out for chances of preferment. When he realises his chance to impress Richard by assisting his plans – even giving him ideas for villainy – his star rises; but once reason starts to kick in, and he doesn’t instantly support Richard’s plan to kill the princes in the tower, his fate is sealed; and that self-assured elegance becomes confused and furious rebelliousness. It’s a magnificent performance.

I was also very impressed with the physical stage presence of Heledd Gwynn in her roles as the sensible Hastings – far too sensible to survive under Richard – and henchman Ratcliff, but also as the chillingly slick murderer sent to despatch Clarence. You almost believe she’s listening and responding to his pleas for mercy; then she shocks us by proving herself a most worthy murderer. There are also great performances from Leila Mimmack as the hopeless Anne and Eileen Nicholas as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother who – let’s just say – is very, very disappointed in him.

But it’s Tom Mothersdale’s performance as Richard that absolutely takes your breath away. Contorting himself in the most awkward of poses to suggest Richard’s deformity, he doth bestride that stage like a Colossus. Revelling in a wonderful range of facial reactions from pretend horror to faux modesty, from amused self-realisation to blinding fury, you cannot take your eyes of him for one moment. His soliloquies are never just him talking to himself; he’s always talking to us, the audience, proudly letting us into his filthy world so that we detest him – but we love him too, resentfully, as he makes us complicit in his wretchedness.

Our emotional reactions to Richard’s situation are very complex; when the spirits of all his victims arrive to taunt him – each blowing silver corpse dust into his face so that he is lost in a sea of ghostly talc – we’re completely supportive of the spirits wanting to seek revenge but also strangely sorry for Richard’s plight. And when they appear and disappear at him from behind their magic mirrors, the fear this engenders is terrifyingly real and dark. It’s a memorable image that remains with you long after the show.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mrs C start a standing ovation before, but this was a no-brainer. A sensational production brought alive by some truly outstanding performances. It would be a true Shakespearean tragedy if this was never to be seen on a stage again – someone really should snap it up! Gripping, terrifying, and funny too. First-class!

Production photos by Marc Brenner