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Henry V

William Shakespeare
Theatre Delicatessen
Marylebone Gardens Building

I am sitting on a stool, caught for a moment in a spotlight. There is a leg pressed up against mine that is quivering. The table I was sitting at has been slickly slid into the light for use as a casualty station where the injuries of the wounded straight from the battlefield can be inspected. The man next to me is a French prisoner. He is trying hard to get a grip on the pain as an English army doctor removes pieces of shrapnel from his brain. I can hear the clink of metal as each is dropped drop into a metal kidney bowl held by my ear. This is the Battle of Agincourt as director Roland Smith sees it.

His production is staged in the basement of the BBC radio's former studios in Marylebone high Street, the latest of the buildings that Theatre Delicatessen has found to operate in as they await redevelopment. It has been turned into a military bunker. The audience share the space with the squaddies.

Met by a red-bereted soldier on arrival you are handed over to a private to be conducted down to the bunker, past the soldier's sleeping space, told where the bar and the toilets are and left to find a place on the stools, benches and sandbags that provide seating. There is nothing to stop you from moving about but it would somehow seem against military discipline and, although the action moves through the space, this is not designed as a promenade production.

It is rather like being an embedded journalist, you can watch what is happening and hear all the briefings but an unspoken protocol discourages attempting an interview or asking questions.

As you wait you can hear voices from the communications room. There are references to the Argentineans but also snatches of Shakespeare, including King Richard II: the "hollow crown" speech. At one side some soldiers line up with a priest and are given communion. Are we waiting to go into action? Suddenly there is a burst of music and pair of privates is stomping around singing "Enjoy Yourself..." and then we are into the play.

A well-spoken soldier appears as the Chorus (Alexander Guiney); he sounds like an officer although he bears only sergeant's stripes. The army chaplains become the Archbishop and the Bishop of Ely for the first scene. All the characters remain in uniform (except for the Cheapside scenes before those characters join the army and the mufti King of France) the French in uniforms much more stylish. The personal arms are rifles and pistols, no anachronistic swords, but quite clearly the scenes now are not really taking place in this bunker.

This is not an attempt to transpose the action to the Falklands, Iraq or Afghanistan but it does replace fifteenth century images with a modern experience of warfare. The production now moves in two parallel worlds that of the play and that of the environment. When they coalesce, and that is more often than not, it creates a very visceral involvement.

When Philip Desmeules enters as King Henry V, there is no trace of the riotous Prince Hal. He is already becoming an assured and politically adroit leader, gaining confidence with each successful action though still fearful of divine retribution for the faults of his usurping father. He is determined to show that he acts lawfully and as the clergy reassure him that the French recourse to Salic law has no validity in this context, you can't help thinking of Bush and Blair and their lack of authenticity, and that shapes reactions to what follows. There is a rather juvenile satisfaction in the way he traps traitors Scrope, Grey and Cambridge and at Harfleur, Henry's rallying call to his forces suggests an accomplished speech writer behind him, though he speaks it like a savage militarist. As the campaign continues you feel he is becoming adept at knowing just the right thing to say, though very unsure whether God is on his side.

It is strongly cast throughout, with some cross-gender casting and doubling that is easily accepted. It doesn't matter if you aren't quite sure which nobleman is which among the royals and when necessary a role change is clearly marked, as when Liam Smith's Pistol is re-garbed to become the French Charles VI. Katherine Heath's design is all around, its effectiveness most apparent in the way you take it for granted.

Despite some cuts, the play runs the best part of three hours with interval. There are places where the pace could be faster but the text is delivered with clarity and understanding. Nevertheless, the most effective scene owes nothing to Shakespeare's language. The battle that gets the name of Agincourt has no charging cavalry, no rows of archers, no muddy morass of dying men (though Montjoy paints that picture later). Yet we experience its danger. The fighting men have all left the bunker, on guard or in the action. This has seemed a safe place with its bunks down the corridor, mess room and bar but now we are alone. Even the communications room seems deserted. There is a tense silence down here in the darkness. Above us we hear the roar of gunfire, the sound of shells exploding gets ever louder. Fear begins to stalk the place. What if the enemy scores a direct hit with a rocket? What if the enemy overruns us? The waiting builds, the explosions get louder then suddenly in rush soldiers. They are ours with the injured.

Other places we hear a tannoy announcement of Bardolph's death sentence for stealing or the intermittent gunfire that persists right through the "Harry in the night" scene. That is an instance of that parallel of past and present: while the fifteenth century army draws breath with a battle in the morning it is a reminder that twentieth century war is unceasing.

This production doesn't bother much with the humour. It ignores Shakespeare's invitation to laugh at Chris Polick's Dauphin, or the Welshness of Christopher Tester's Fluellen. We are allowed to relax with the English lesson between French Princess Katherine (Laura Martin-Simpson) and Alice (Jessica Guise) but Henry's wooing of Katherine is played to show the determined king's strategy rather than for laughs. This is a politically conscious production not a patriotic celebration.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton