So, can the small provincial cockpit of the Oxford Playhouse hold the vasty fields of France? Well yes, with a little help from you and me. Shakespeare’s Henry V is a play all about make-believe; grown men in tin hats playing at soldiers – and at monarchs – contriving to build with flimsy materials a world of martial glory; but also of social and moral philosophy, cautionary example and the interplay between states; all through the complicity of imagination.
The Globe Theatre’s touring production makes the most of this tradition of makeshift performance space. Just as the Globe itself is designed to be as faithful as possible a reproduction of the original, down to the authentic materials and 16th century building techniques, Globe on Tour evokes the spirit of hastily erected scaffolding in a local inn yard, and the effect is charming. So often we’re asked to suspend disbelief for the sake of theatre; this is a production which explains why, touching on the history of theatre itself.
Jamie Parker, who has previously played the wayward Prince Hal in the Globe’s productions of Henry IV, is a grand choice for the part. With a suitably gruff soldierly exterior hiding a keen mind and sense of purpose, he commands the stage with quiet authority, seemingly incidental but in fact carefully studied, and his counsellors watch for his reaction as others speak. The comic scenes with the king’s erstwhile carousing companions are deftly handled, although use of colourful accents and speech patterns, while sounding good, sometimes made the words difficult to hear. Paul Rider shone as a charismatically repellent Bardolph, and Sam Cox’s Pistol preened and postured to great effect. Captain Fluellen, always a delight, was portrayed with dignity and innocence by Brendan O’Hea. The overweening French were given a fairly sympathetic turn, and the scenes of linguistic interplay between Princess Katherine (Olivia Ross), Alice (Lisa Stevenson) and the king were beautifully delivered, helped along by a great French accent from Ross and a super mangling of English from Stevenson.
In this world of rustling armour and bendy swords, producing a battle scene which doesn’t come across as a bit daft is always a challenge, but the fighting here is well realised. A couple of really loud bangs to get the adrenaline pumping, and a symbolic representation of the stages of battle – archers, infantry – creates a violent dance which gets the message across with effective minimalism. Subtle touches throughout bring home the horrors of war, incidental to the main action: a wounded and dying soldier is casually stepped on as he tries to crawl to safety; Captain Gower (Matthew Flynn) ministers to his gruesomely bleeding toes while carrying on a conversation.
Plaudits should definitely go to the musicians; early music specialists who provided atmospheric accompaniment on lutes and sackbuts and – with the rest of the cast – through rousing folk songs and impressive drumming. The dance theme of the battles is carried through to the closing scene, when a Bollywood-referencing ensemble piece echoes the conflicts which have occurred throughout the play with a cleansing humour and refreshing energy.
This is a thoroughly beguiling production, cleverly staged and well acted; a history lesson in more ways than one, dealing with serious questions of kingly duty, personal responsibility and the ravages of war, but, most importantly, leading a captive audience in a rip-roaring adventure for a ransom of applause.