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Henry V

William Shakespeare
Guildford Shakespeare Company
Guildford Cathedral

Richard Galazka Credit: Mark Dean
Richard Galazaka, Morgan Philpott and Chris Porter Credit: Mark Dean
Matt Pinches, Chris Porter and Emily Tucker Credit: Mark Dean
Richard Galazka Credit: Mark Dean

With Guildford Cathedral as an ominous, looming backdrop, Guildford Shakespeare Company's production of Henry V is a joyous interpretation of an aggressively masculine play.

It is hard to believe that it could be logically staged with only five actors given the number of supporting characters, representations of soldiers, nobility and courtiers, and the obvious division between the English and French scenes. Skilfully directed and adapted by Caroline Devlin however, this production distils the essence of the play and manages to simplify aspects of the plot without sacrificing the impact.

It works perfectly with five actors who begin as the chorus and then enact the play for the audience. When they ask, "can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?" they not only reference the obvious metatheatricality of the text but also challenge the waiting audience to trust that it can be performed so simply.

For the concept to work, it relies on an excellent ensemble of which these five indeed are, but that is not to imply that there are not strong individual performances in evidence.

Matt Pinches effortlessly moves from a camp and caricatured French Dauphin to Welshman Captain Fluellen with a variety of more serious roles in-between. Chris Porter neatly underplays Ancient Pistol but clearly enjoys turning up the comedy dial for Captain Jamy as does Morgan Philpott who switches from a brooding King of France to an exasperated Captain MacMorris.

Richard Galazka creates a sincere and honest Henry, but also plays Mistress Quickly with gusto, complete with comedy breasts and mob cap. Ever-changing is also the fifth actor, Emily Tucker, who not only plays a charming Katherine of France but also an arrogant French Ambassador, hapless Captain Gower and many other male parts.

With obvious and unconcealed changes of cloaks and tunics the switching of parts is easy to comprehend and aids the characterisation.

In this characterisation, there is gravity where appropriate but also a great deal of levity that has been largely absent from other versions of Henry that I have seen. This lightness ensures plenty of laughs but also increases the impact of the tense final sections of the play.

The injections of physical sequences, which are used sparingly, drive the piece forward and give an unapologetic view of the brutality of war. The impressive projections onto the Cathedral support this bloody aspect and the pumping soundtrack completes the powerful picture.

Running at just over two hours, this is not an immersive, exhausting promenade but a show with well considered momentum making the most of its environment. The arches to the side of the cathedral where the scenes in Southampton take place juxtapose magnificently the imperious front of the cathedral that represents the French court. The 'wooden O' where the rest of the play takes place is behind the Cathedral near a large crucifix that adds weight to Henry's cries that God is on his side.

This is a riveting production which showcases the enormous talents of the cast and creative team offering an evening of accessible and heartfelt Shakespeare.

Reviewer: Amy Yorston