Henry V, Union Theatre

I’ve known Lazarus THTP-037-4heatre Company and artistic director Ricky Dukes’ work for a long time. We first met back in 2010 sharing a venue at Camden Fringe when I was a fledgling producer. Since then, I’ve seen several of their shows and reviewed others, including The Spanish Tragedy (my first review for everything theatre) and last summer’s Troilus & Cressida. Dukes is visually inventive, with a solid grasp on the challenges of classical theatre. He boldly reconceptualises plays, honouring the language but ensuring productions are energetic and a feast for the eyes and ears. I expect Lazarus shows to provide a creative, unique perspective on the play, with high quality performances. Until this Henry V at The Union Theatre, they have always fulfilled these expectations.

The all-female, barefoot cast is rendered androgynous by identical navy blue boiler suits, emphasising Lazarus’ dedicated ensemble approach. Whilst this easily allows for multi-rolling, there is no visual distinction between characters. This hinders understanding of the story, particularly with the sweeping cuts to the text. The dark colour is a striking contrast to the dominating white table in the middle of the thrust stage, covered in religiously symbolic items, all white or light coloured: candles, an ornate bible, an alter cloth, a bowl of water for ritualistic washing, and Henry’s crown. These objects justify Henry’s contentious claim to France. A stack of self-referential Arden scripts is tucked under the table. There is no other set, save for black metal chairs ringing the playing space for actors to sit when not performing. The cast are on stage the entire time, a Brechtian technique used to emphasise the narrative aspect of theatre. Additional visuals include a creepily masked French herald, bright pink gift bags filled with the Dauphin’s luminous green tennis balls and a single pink helium balloon. These remain on stage for the duration, as well as the balls, which are thrown about the space upon delivery, causing the actors to tread warily. The overall look of the production harks back to the 1960’s.

The colour combinations and excellent lighting design looks fantastic. Dukes and the actors use the stage effectively, playing to all sides of the audience. Any individual moment could be photographed and it would make a striking image. The issue is that none of these visual choices supports the production concept. Dukes wants the audience to question whether Henry really has the right to invade France. Clutching at straws, I connected the boiler suits to mechanics, or builders – perhaps these characters are tearing down England and rebuilding it to be bigger, faster and stronger? This is tenuous, at best.

I really want this production to be as good as Lazarus’ past productions I’ve seen. Adaptations of Shakespeare should give the audience new insight into the play and provide a clear level of understanding, but this time Lazarus did not succeed in doing so. Other than it looking great, the reason behind the design choices remains unclear and they do not support the production concept.

The ensemble has some excellent performances. Colette O’Rourke is a feisty Northern Henry that holds attention throughout her lengthy trademark speeches. She is grounded, but with a volatile, pent up aggression. Her performance is reminiscent of Clare Dunn’s Hal in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar last year. Just as watchable is RJ Seeley as Fluellen, who has some great scenes with Emily Owens’ Pistol. Nuala McGowan is vibrant and dynamic as the disturbing French herald and Captain MacMorris. The rest of the cast struggle to distinguish themselves from each other, delivering the text with nearly identical rhythm and pace.

Other devices that add distinctive features but no further clarification to the production concept include a loud hailer through which Henry rallies his troops, but it flattens delivery. Some speeches are delivered in prayer, emphasising the driving force of religion in Henry’s mission. Direct address is used copiously as it should be, but not excessively so. The St. Crispin’s speech is a wonderfully intimate interpretation. Pistol adds in some “fuck you’s”, which although gratuitous, suit the character. The diverse female cast, whilst laudable for diversity reasons, also provides no unique insight into the play, as their costume and performance style does not pander to any particular gender identity.

This Henry V is certainly not a bad production, but it is not up to Lazarus’ usual standard of excellence. A great performance from the title role and striking visuals help hold audience interest to some extent, but the lack of concept and design unity prevent total audience engagement.

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