Henry V

William Shakespeare
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions
Shakespeare's Rose Theatre, York

The cast Credit: Charlotte Graham
The cast Credit: Charlotte Graham
Ali Azhar (Dauphin) Credit: Charlotte Graham

Last year, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre offered audiences a lively staging of Richard III with a deliciously wicked villain in Dyfan Dwyfor. For their second season in York, the Rose has opted for Henry V as their chosen history play.

If you’re unfamiliar with Henry V, it’s likely that you will still recognise passages from the play’s most famous speeches. Lines such as “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” have been quoted by seemingly everyone, from Churchill and John F Kennedy to characters in Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

One of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays, Henry V is a powerful depiction of warfare. Convinced that he has a claim to France, King Henry (Maggie Bain) raises an army to invade the neighbouring country. His campaign culminates in a spectacular victory at the Battle of Agincourt and his marriage to Princess Katharine (Charlyne Francis), daughter of the French king.

Shakespeare scholar Norman Rabkin has described Henry V as a play that manages to be both pro- and anti-war, celebrating its victories whilst also lamenting its costs. Overall, Gemma Fairlie’s well-directed production manages to strike the right note of ambivalence.

It’s impossible to stage a contemporary production of Henry V without the ghost of Brexit looming over proceedings, particularly as the play spotlights one of Britain’s most famous military triumphs. In the programme notes, scholar Emma Smith describes the play as "a hymn to England as plucky underdog facing down arrogant continental adversaries", and this concept certainly comes through in Fairlie’s production. However, the director also appreciates the dark side of nationalism; the scenes in which the audience are encouraged to chant “In-ger-lund” alongside the soldiers are deliberately discomfiting, as such expressions of patriotism have been appropriated by racist and far-right groups.

This is a traditional yet compelling production of a well-known play that makes good use of the theatrical space. Much like the original Elizabethan staging, the rear of the stage serves as the walls of Harfleur, against which English scaling ladders are propped. Due to a lack of scenery, designer Max Props relies on a series of props—most strikingly, giant English flags which become progressively bloody over the course of the production.

Maggie Bain gives a strong central performance as Henry, conveying the monarch’s supreme confidence and powerfully delivering his most fiery speeches. The rest of the cast do fine work in multiple roles, although some of the French nobles’ accents did wander into Monty Python territory at times. Charlyne Francis is charming and playful as Katharine, particularly during the wooing scene, and Raphael Bushay is suitably conceited as the French ambassador who delivers messages to Henry.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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