Henry V – Abingdon Drama Club, Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon, Wednesday 25th March 2015
“Once more unto the breach” went Abingdon's Drama Club last night, performing Henry V to mark the 600th anniversary of the English victory against the French at Agincourt in 1415. The actors had clearly “stiffened their sinews and summoned up the blood” to successfully perform this challenging play. The cast's “teeth were set and nostril's stretched wide” to eloquently deliver Shakespeare's verse and prose, none more so than Terry Atkinson in the title role. In spite of a few hesitations overall the cast smoothly delivered the verse and these minor issues did not prove any impediment to the flow and comprehension of the text. In their mastery of the language the performances of Andrea Mardon, Chorus, Lynne Smith, Hostess Quickly, and John Hawkins as Captain Fluellen were particularly successful and consequently their characterization moved beyond the language and through the use of tone and depth portrayed the deeper emotions of the play.
Director Michael Ward had elected to stage the play in the round which can be challenging enough without the limitations of this mock-Elizabethan theatre. I was concerned to be seated on the add-on temporary stage and further perturbed when the play opened and the stage reverberated and wobbled with each of the cast's steps. However, I imagined myself sitting in the latties around a temporary stage in a Tudor inn and as the play progressed my concerns faded into the background. This minimalist staging was effectively underpinned by clever use of colour, background music and visuals. Although by happenstance the French and the English were divided by sex (all the French nobles were played by women) the divisions in the play were actually highlighted through the use of colour – the English in red and the French in blue. I also found the frequent projection on to the stage of the crude, smeared and bloodied image of the cross of St George very effective in emphasizing the play's war-torn setting. This use of audio-visuals came into its own in the actual depiction of the battle and I was pleased to see the use of longbows during this re-enactment.
According to research done on longbows found on the Mary Rose it took a great deal of strength, courage and practice to be an English longbow man and these are also qualities which contributed to the success of this performance. This was greatly appreciated by an eclectic mix of people in the full-house who were engaged by the actors throughout the performance – wherever they sat – and held rapt to the end of the play. This interpretation of Henry V mastered the difficulties of interpreting Shakespeare and clearly showed the pertinence of a drama which successfully depicts the highs and lows of human existence from the top to the bottom of a society riven by war. The values and emotions portrayed were clearly relevant to our own society and their successful portrayal made this production not only enjoyable and entertaining but also thought-provoking and emotive. I was very pleased that I had been amongst “the few, the happy few” to see last night's performance and recommend others to go along to the rest of the play's run.