This Propeller production of Henry V – performed in repertoire with The Winter’s Tale – is my third Henry V in as many weeks. But this is a Henry to conquer all others. All-male theatre company Propeller are the perfect troupe to tackle this testosterone laden play and they do so with relish in a production which is as relentless as it is engaging.
As a friend commented, this is blockbuster Shakespeare. Everything about it is punchy and impressive. Even the scene changes are masterly in their choreography, entertaining in their own right.
The piece is powered by a chorus made up of eloquent but bluntly spoken squaddies. Edward Hall’s production places the action firmly in the now, with a soundscape of war that raises hairs on the back of your neck as bullets hiss by. The strong ensemble cast switch between supporting characters just as quickly. These men are, on one hand, aggression-fuelled fighting machines and on the other, vulnerable, human, men of flesh and blood. With the connection between actor and audience at the forefront of every choice, the production offers both detailed realism and enlarged Elizabethan playing.
Hall’s production is also very, very funny, full of little winks and nudges. Hall’s company portray both the violence and the buffoonery of war. The French are pilloried mercilessly and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Nym, Bardoph and Pistol done so well as they are by Finn Hanlon, Gary Shelford and Vince Leigh, displaying the most delicious of comedy camaraderie. The Boy is performed with a gorgeous lightness of touch by Karl Davies. His tragedy is felt all the more keenly because Davies infuses him with such wise charm.
Throughout the production, the action is enhanced by an eclectic carousel of music, London Calling juxtaposed with a sweetly sung choral chamber piece, Te Deum and Non Nobis, beautifully composed by cast member Nicholas Asbury (himself a fantastically camp Montjoy). Whether modern or old, rock or folk, these choices enhance the nationalism of Shakespeare’s triumphant play, with each piece further interrogating what it is to be Englishness.
But what of the king? Dugald Bruce-Lockhart is a natural leader, his rousing speeches have an uplifting and aptly propelling quality. He displays the steel of a warrior and the charm of a politician and is by no means an untouchable hero. But his journey is not clearly developed enough. He begins as a the king and this is where he finishes, there is no sense of progress from boy to man, rather from man to man, and as such one feels he has learnt little.
This aside Hall has created a rip-roaring and faithfully triumphalist production that succeeds in subtly unpicking Shakespeare’s morally ambiguous play.