The Old Red Lion's rep season opens with a fizzle with Henry Filloux-Bennett's heavily politicised version of Henry V. Abandoning Shakespeare's plot in favour of adapting smaller scenes to fit the invasion of Iraq (barely), more moments don't work than do - although strong performances mean that an overall mess works well in smaller doses.
As it seems everyone's having a pop at Shakespeare's most patriotic history currently, many readers may already be aware of the story - and even those who don't will know a great many of the speeches: rabble-rousing battle cries, now the fodder of sports teams everywhere, which Henry drops in many a scene while he invades France, which is also the entirety of the plot. Of course, this wouldn't be Shakespeare without some minor subplots and comic moments, but this production mostly circumvents these in favour of the politics of war - at only an hour and 50, this is a much condensed version, and a lot of the cut material is what keeps the tone of the original lighter.
Filloux-Bennett has also taken a particularly heavy-handed directorial line - this is no modernisation of a 15th-century conflict, but a direct representation of the invasion of Iraq, reminiscent of the National Theatre's production in 2003. Except the National Theatre production was a measured and aligned analogy - thus allowing Shakespeare's lines to function in a modern context. What Filloux-Bennett has done, instead, is fit the play to history, with scenes and characters rearranged and cut with abandon to fit the events and his much smaller cast. And it just doesn't work.
You see, no matter how much I wish it had happened, Tony Blair wasn't on the ground during the Iraq war, gun in hand, to stand on a sand-blown battlement to command his soldiers "once more unto the breech!"; so Filloux-Bennett splits Henry down the middle, separating the part into two: one actor plays Henry the politician ("Tony Blair") and another plays Henry the soldier, with no explanation at all, and the result is about as confusing as this sentence. And describing what are clearly Iraqi soldiers as 'French' doesn't make much sense either - especially when some even have cod-Arabic accents to boot. I'd understand all of this as an analogy - which is the route Nicholas Hytner took at the National - but as a direct correlation it smacks of overbearing direction over a clever conceit.
It's lucky, then, that the performers are generally strong: Jack Morris' Tony Blair is rather impressively nuanced, despite erring on the side of impersonation over individual performance, and Mark Field is freed from some of the more trite Henry moments to give his soldier Henry a more rounded and human approach to the war - although, in splitting the Henrys, Filloux-Bennett still hasn't managed to find a way to separate the more aggressive Henry (threatening rape and pillage) and the more patriotic one: another hint that this may be a rather pointless directorial choice. Steve Fortune, Nicholas Kime and Henry Regan all have nice moments as the swathe of minor characters they jump in and out of (with minor costume changes, muddying the waters further), but Christine Oram isn't quite strong enough as the Chorus, with faltering delivery getting in the way of a production that desperately needs someone to question whether "this cockpit can hold the plains of France".
However, these are all talented performers, and their efforts do not go unnoticed - they try their best to survive in this difficult concept and the scenes themselves unfold well. But this is, generally speaking, a mess, and needed a more critical outside eye to stop this heavy-handed approach - with so many productions of this Shakespeare going ahead, this may be the version to avoid.