9 July 2015

Dark and innovative Henry V at the Union Theatre


I have seen a few Shakespeare adaptations at small theatres in the last few years and they have all been good or better, including two (Lear and Play of Thrones) at the Union Theatre, so there was never really any choice to make about going to see Henry V.

Like Lear, Henry V had a woman in the lead role only this time it had women in all of the roles. That was clearly unusual and interesting but that was not the main reason that I wanted to see it. More important to me were the reputations of Shakespeare and the Union Theatre and it helped that I has seen some positive comments posted on Twitter, my main source of information on current shows.

Because work was messing me about regarding where I worked and how long I had to work for (working on bids always always means late nights, which is a sign that we do not manage them well) it was a late decision to go on this Thursday evening. So late that the online booking system had closed and I had to head to the theatre to get a ticket. The online system had indicated availability earlier in the day so I was not too worried. Besides, the worst case is that they would be sold out in which case I would still have had a good walk from Kings Cross to Southwark.

It took me about 45 minutes to walk to the theatre from the office, a walk I had done several times by then, and I got there around 6:45pm only a quarter of an hour after the box office opened. I paid my £15 (a bargain) and was pleased to be given a ticket number of less than ten which meant that I would be in the first group of people allowed in.

I also had time to pop across the road for a much appreciated pint (it had been a hot day for the walk) and my usual nachos to provide some calories.

Going into the Union Theatre is always exciting. The stage area is hidden by a wall with entrances either side and it is not until you walk though one of those entrances that you know how the stage is laid out and then a quick decision has to be made on where to sit.

This time the seating was U-shaped and I took a seat in the front row half way down the right side of the U. In the centre of the stage was a table with candles and a crown and around the stage was a line of folding chairs. The open end of the U was hazed with mist made spookier by low lighting. The cast were hidden in there chanting.

Once we were settled they came into the central area, some standing and others taking advantage of the chairs.

Henry V, despite the battles, is a play dominated by speech and with little action. Shakespeare recognises this an opens with an almost apologetic narration explaining that great things will happen but we will need our imaginations to see them. This production recognised the play's limitations too and instilled life into the long dialogues with lots of movement, plenty of direct eye contact with the audience and some clever lighting. They also made the French ambassador wear a clown's mask and sing Frère Jacques.

I seemed to be man-marked by a Welsh woman, look you, who looked at me a lot and spent some time standing on the chair directly in front of me leaving me to contemplate her toes which drew the thought that they should have been painted, preferably black, as they had been in Duncton Wood.

The play followed the lines that it had the last time that I saw it though some of the language was a little different and a little more profane. Essentially the play is a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of Henry V in which everybody tells us how great he is and he does great things. The greatest great thing was beating the French at Agincourt when vastly outnumbered and with the loss of only 25 men against 10,000 on the French side. This is not entirely accurate historically.

There was a rawness and a darkness to the play that I liked. This was reinforced by both the low level of lighting and the black boiler suits that the cast wore but most of it came from the strong and harsh delivery of the words.

Henry V is far from my favourite Shakespeare play but it is a Shakespeare play and this production captured its mood neatly and enjoyably.

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