Henry V opens with a rather marvelous prologue. The audience is asked to consider, ‘Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?’. It’s a question of enduring relevance to directors and casts alike. In a world of ambitious sets, what is actually necessary to transport the mind of the audience member into the world of the script?
I’ll be perfectly honest. Although ever-eager to put this question to the test, this was NOT the case on Monday evening. After one of the balmiest days in recent weeks, I was hot and bothered and unsure I’d be able to focus on an evening of Shakespeare.
However, my curiosity won the day and I mosied down Marylebone High Street to the Henry V press night. The production is the latest work from Theatre Delicatessen, a company who specialise in innovative takes on text-based theatre, by working with ensemble casts and creating immersive performances. Inspired by alternative performance spaces, Theatre Delicatessen has the noble ambition to use the ‘non-theatre’ to breathe life into classical theatre texts and challenge audiences to consider them in a new light.
Their newest pop up venue is the Marylebone Gardens. Although opposite my favourite book shop (Daunt Books), I had no inkling where this building was (classic ‘can’t see past the end of your nose’ syndrome). Theatre Delicatessen have promised to transform the cavernous space – the former offices of BBC London – into a ‘theatre factory’ (their phrase not mine) this Summer. I guess it’s a theatre project that not only rejuvenates texts, but further sheds potential anew on disused buildings.
I’m always a tad nervous of ‘alternative’ performances in case they implement ‘twists’ on a classic without due purpose. I’ve been a victim of oh-too-many Shakespeare plays performed by so-called ‘innovators’ who believe they have refreshed a classic simply by dressing the cast in 21st Century dress. I’m delighted to say that Theatre Delicatessen was not guilty of such a redundant gimmick.
From the moment I was frogmarched into the deepest, darkest, depths of the building by an in-character soldier as if a new recruit, I was captivated. Transformed into a makeshift barracks, audience members are in the thick of it; whether sat around a table with cast members, or perched as I was on a soldier’s bed surrounded by momentos of ‘home’ .
Whilst the play focuses on Henry V’s historic campaign to recapture English possessions in France, the modern Army setting provides a real purpose. It provides the horror of wartime with an enduring relevance and makes the conflict and distress all the more poignant. Huddled together in the discomfort of darkness, cast and spectator alike experience the jarring sounds of battle ‘up-above’.
In this fourth part of Shakespeare’s ‘history-plays’, the character of Henry V has matured from a young pleasure-seeker into a force to be reckoned with. Incensed by a slight from the pesky French who dominate Shakespeare’s ‘baddie’ list, the King goes full throttle on giving the ‘don’t mess with me’ lesson to his foes. Philip Desmeules shines as the intelligent and witty ruler. The task is for Desmeules to convincingly portray a rhetorical wizard with a history; one with an agressive confidence and arrogance that can anger and woo alike . This he does in spades. Bringing life and heart to the genius of Shakespeare’s phrasing, his charisma was such that even I was ready to follow him into battle!
Truth be told, the entire cast give a stellar performance. With all on stage for the majority of the play, this is no mean feat. A real ensemble piece, each cast member takes on multiple roles to great effect. Liam Smith, in particular, astounds the eyes by metamorphosing from London commoner to Charles VI and back again. With barely more than a removal of his hat, his mastery of body language and voice allows him to shift seamlessly from one to the other. In this way, the cost and struggles experienced in conflict are highlighted as a common ground between enemies. Food for thought that, with staging and casting, relatively little actually separate the warring sides.
Having seen a great many plays in recent months, this is one that has stuck with me! From the easy humour of cultural and linguistic divisions to the devastating sadness of wasted life, this is a production that hits hard. Quite an achievement… in a basement in Marylebone… on a stifling day…
Images: cr. Lorna Palmer (Henry V by Theatre Delicatessen)