This was our first experience of the Propeller Theatre Company, of whom I had heard Good Things, and I can understand the hype. They tackle the text head on, making those Shakespearean words as meaningful as possible; and involve the audience and indeed even the theatre building itself as much as they can, which gives the play instant impact and keeps it relevant to today. The programme describes the company as “an all-male Shakespeare company, which mixes a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
I loved the ways this production broke down barriers: physical ones. Members of the company dressed in terrorist style combats infiltrated the bar and lobbies of the theatre before the show starts. The company accessed the auditorium through the public entrances, emerging on to the stage from behind the audience rather than coming on from the wings or the back. They sang songs in front of the box office during the interval. They chatted with audience members from the stage and from the aisles at the beginning of the second half. It’s all very involving and inclusive. You felt that the actors actually realised we were there with them, and took us personally into account when they performed. Obviously, it’s all rehearsed but nevertheless it has a spontaneous feel to it. Director Edward Hall and the company must all have a terrific relationship together, providing a strong ensemble element to the production whilst the individual actors still all have their own separate and well-defined characters.
Nowhere is this better utilised than in Henry V’s Chorus. A difficult one to get right, I feel. Is it an everyman character? Perhaps a lone soldier? A courtier? The Chorus plays an important role in moving the play forwards, stage by stage, location by location, and keeps explaining the progress of the play in a most helpful manner. In this production, the entire cast take on the role of the Chorus, each taking individual lines. It’s a good way of introducing the main players in each scene, and commenting on what will unfold in each act. In Act Two, for example, the Chorus identifies the three traitors who will be executed, and the three actors who play the traitors, don their costumes as they are introduced, making it visually clearer what is going on. A Brechtian approach, 300 years before Brecht.
The use of music within the production is also strong and telling. Many of the performers are skilled musicians, and more barriers are broken by use of modern songs – I loved the use of the Clash’s London Calling, for example. And then there is the depiction of violence. In an era where computer games have created “death-lite” and its horror is losing its impact, this production aligns the violence in the play with an additional visual device, making it slightly less violent in reality but not in effect.
For example, when a soldier is being attacked on the battle field, the attacker is shown hitting a punchbag at the side of the stage, and at the sound of the impact, the victim falls or reacts to the punch centre stage – but there is no actual violent act depicted on the actor himself. The most effective use of this device was the beheading of the three traitors: the executioner dramatically wields his axe into a wooden stump, and at the sight and sound of the blow, the three traitors behind all drop down in instantaneous lifelessness. Really different – and a really stunning effect.
I felt there were only two aspects of the production that could have been improved. One of them is Shakespeare’s fault. This is a play about a warrior nation, led by a warrior king, and there are lots – and lots – of battle scenes. About halfway through the second half, it all began to get a bit samey. As we had been treated to so many visually intriguing devices and characterisations, maybe we had been a bit spoiled by what had gone on so far. The continuous battlefield stuff just got a little dull for me. In fact Mrs Chrisparkle allowed herself forty winks during this period. But I blame Shakespeare. He didn’t always get it right.
The other slight problem for me was the performance of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Henry V. There are at least four aspects to the warrior king – the warmonger, the negotiator, the magnanimous victor, and the ham-fisted lover. Working backwards, the final “love” scenes with Katherine were light, gauche, awkward and extremely funny. Mr Bruce-Lockhart was perfectly cast for that aspect of the part. As the magnanimous victor, he was also extremely convincing; a very noble king, keen to hear the names of the fallen in battle and that their names should be given due reverence. His refined bearing helped enormously in giving the impression of fairness in battle, and decency in triumph. As a negotiator with the French King and the Herald, his diffidence didn’t always quite make sense to me. I didn’t get a sense of his motives or the justice behind his claim. And as an actual warrior, I’m afraid I wasn’t really convinced at all. His voice and characterisation was for me too mild. I didn’t get the feeling that he would motivate me on the battlefield to go off and do his bloody work for him. I think maybe he was just a bit too nice.
Other members of the cast though hit exactly the right note. I particularly liked Chris Myles as the Duke of Exeter, a purposeful soldier with a touch of Field Marshal Montgomery about him, shrewd eyes pointing withering looks to the French Herald. John Dougall’s French King had an excellent superior disdain in his dealings with the English in the early scenes and had diminished nicely to vanquished status by the end. Nicely stated supporting performances by Nicholas Asbury as the effete French Herald Montjoy, Gunnar Cauthery as the Dauphin, but particularly good I thought as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Karl Davies as Scroop and Katherine, all gave the production additional power and resonance.
A strong production performed by an excellent ensemble, touring into next summer. I recommend it.