Be warned: once you’ve made it past reception, you are a soldier in Henry’s army and will be in the hands of your commanding officer. Line up and, on command, march to your seat. The seats in the dungeon-like military bunker are almost wherever you find something to sit on. There are sandbags and church pews around the side of the playing space, or even stools available next to the performers, who play cards to pass the time whilst they wait for orders. Even at this stage, the soldiers all have their personalities and personal stories on show as they interact with each other. There are bunk beds in the corridor and hints of activity in neighbouring rooms. War slogans adorn the walls leading up to the bar, which is not only run by men in combats and berets but also boasts a training playground for the more adventurous (and suitably dressed) audience to crawl under netting, climb a frame and step through tyres. Director Roland Smith and designer Katherine Heath have clearly had some fun bringing this environment to life.
After a crash of incoming ballistics which plunges the room into silent darkness, Alexander Guiney’s Chorus calmly delivers his opening over the “muse of fire” from his lighter. As the light returns, he takes a leather-bound script and passes it to the Archbishop to become the first prop of the scene and start the action. As his role dictates, he asks that we, as audience, must do our part to imagine scenes far greater than what can be put on stage. However, with an impressive array of distant (and some not-so distant) explosive sound effects from Fergus Waldron, little imagination is needed to feel part of the action.
Philip Desmeules plays the young king with assured comprehension of the character. With a considerable amount of text, he captures much of the frustration, fear, confidence and also comedy of Henry and although, like the majority of the cast, his annunciation was superb, I felt that there were higher levels of passion to be explored vocally. Desmeules, with his slim frame, is not an imposing man and whilst this fit the character’s youth and naïvity, it sometimes felt as though he lacked enough authority as leader, particularly hidden under some oversized fatigues. In contrast, Christopher Tester demonstrates less subtlety as the Archbishop, Lord Scroop and Fluellen. At first, his performance seems at risk of jarring with the others, with his precise physical movements and intense delivery, but I quickly realised that Tester is clearly a very accomplished performer and seemingly handles the comedy of the Welsh captain as effortlessly as the tears of Lord Scroop. With so many characters being played by so few, the performances of the supporting cast cannot go unmentioned for their versatility. Liam Smith switches from the cocky and brash Pistol to the elegant but frail King of France in the time it took to switch jackets; the female cast members adeptly slid between common cockney, the Queen’s English and fluent French without a moment to doubt their authenticity. There is a lovely comic scene between Katherine (Laura Martin-Simpson) and her lady-in-waiting (Jessica Guise), set on-board a helicopter, where Katherine learns the English for various body parts. This is a strong cast who work well together.
Shakespeare’s text is not known for its brevity and at around three hours - including the interval - this production hasn’t left much out, so choose your seating carefully: some are more comfortable than others. It didn’t help that, towards the end, the pace slowed a little and although a welcome respite from the action of having a wounded French soldier operated on a matter of inches in front of me, I would have appreciated a touch more momentum to the final scenes.
Overall, this is a great production and one I can recommend seeing. It shows both the patriotism and the destruction of war. One highlight was the scene of two terrified army medics (Chris Polick and Zimmy Ryan) waiting at attention in front of a white-clothed operating table as the battle began above. Smith timed this beautifully to create silence in the bunker as we listened to the cacophony of gunfire outside and waited for the wounded to begin pouring in. Even with Shakespeare’s classic text, this moment spoke volumes without a word.