May 7, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

Henry V (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

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Propeller’s ability to create community remains unsurpassed. Raising money for charity during the interval of last night’s Henry V, their rousing rendition of "The Wild Rover" was bolstered by a good hundred audience members, gathered in a cramped foyer space around a couple of acoustic instruments. The camaraderie between audience and actors – most dressed at this point as dishevelled soldiers – continued into the auditorium following the interval, cast chatting with audience members in the aisles and from the stage. Once more, as the company’s own subtitle proclaims, we were "in the company of men". This was no diversion from the play, though, but fundamental to a production that saw comradeship as being at the heart of Henry V.

The play opened with a band of soldiers marching through the audience, singing. Reaching the stage, they began relaxing and unpacking their bags, until one of them uncovered a crown. Unwinding their tired bodies, they began addressing the lines of the opening Chorus to the audience, sharing the speech among the whole company. This became a recurring motif of the production, the actors always breaking out of character and delivering the Chorus in their own voices. The suggestion throughout was that this was the soldiers’ story, perhaps even that promised by their King in the Agincourt speech. As a story retold and reperformed, it became also timeless; every war from Agincourt itself to the Normandy beaches to the modern theatre of war was evoked as the story unfolded.

A strong streak of nationalism ran through the play, though without the heavy-handed critique of many previous productions of the play. A St. George’s flag flew high above the pieces of scaffolding that filled the stage, and scene changes were filled with snatches of soldier songs and anthems. This was particularly important when it bled into the Eastcheap section (conflated into one scene, with any reference to Falstaff omitted), opening as it did with Bardolph (Gary Shelford) leading football chants and downing pints. The rabble of this scene including a mohican-wearing Nym (Finn Hanlon), Vince Leigh’s Pistol in football shirt and broken teeth, and Tony Bell as Mistress Quickly in a wedding dress, the two emerging straight from their marriage. The characters were established as full of swagger, shouting and fighting with little sense. The unthinking cruelty of the scene came through in a rather sad moment as the line of soldiers shuffled out past Mistress Quickly, one by one laughing in her face rather than kissing her or pretending to retch. Yet a tenderness lay under the characters, particularly as Pistol and his wife exchanged a tacky, light-up red heart as a pledge of love.

The treatment of nationalism was not complex, and omitted the scene of the four captains, allowing a simple opposition between England and France to be set up. While Nicholas Asbury’s much-maligned Montjoy appeared with a flick of his scarf and affected gestures on each occasion, the remainder of the French were trenchcoated, formal and arrogant, formidable if overconfident enemies rather than foolish fops. Gunnar Cauthery’s blustering Dauphin acted nonchalant but concealed a deep-rooted rage, which became manifest on the arrival of Chris Myles’s Exeter at the French court. Meanwhile John Dougall gave a dignified performance as an elderly, tired and failing French King, no match for the rather smug Henry.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart first appeared in full military dress as Henry, which he resumed at the end. This confident, fluent hero-king gave the impression of experience, a calculating and composed man rather than a youngster trying to find his way. While I find Bruce-Lockhart a compelling physical actor, I was disappointed by his lack of vocal range – lines were delivered in a quizzical, light tone, working well for more thoughtful scenes but lacking power in the heat of battle. What came across clearly, however, was that this was a king with a plan, unafraid to take difficult decisions. The production made no effort to point up the prior connection between Henry and the Eastcheap crowd, but Bardolph’s execution was played out onstage (Exeter snapping his neck on top of the scaffold) and his broken body left onstage for Henry to gaze at, after voicing his agreement directly to Pistol. The interval closed on the image of Henry looking up at Bardolph, the latter cast clearly as a victim.

The earlier ousting of the traitors played as expected, with the added menace of a group of soldiers waiting to grab Cambridge, Scroop and Grey as soon as they had read the dossiers handed to them by Henry. The presence of anonymous soldiers onstage throughout the play, whether playing music or silently watching, acted as a reminder that this was their story, and Henry’s continual acknowledgement of the common men following him allowed the ‘band of brothers’ mentality to be sustained throughout, while also being problematised by his easy orders to kill. Fascinatingly, Pistol became the continual foil to Henry, pointing up the human cost of what was being asked of the men. After a comic but brutally violent scene with Monsieur Le Fer (the excellent Dominic Thorburn, who in minor parts in both this and The Winter’s Tale really distinguished himself vocally), Pistol dragged him onstage in time for Henry’s order for the soldiers to kill their prisoners. An appalled and shaking Pistol was forced to stand over Le Fey while other men held him down and act out the slitting of his throat.

The play’s violence was played remotely – actors kicked or punched punchbags, or cut open bags of fake blood, while victims reacted elsewhere on the stage. This allowed for the violence to be imaginatively extreme without looking restrained, as in the image of the Boy covered in stage blood but never actually touched. Cannon, gunfire and smoke created a suitably warlike environment, with some wonderful physical activity during Chorus scenes as the company recreated the D-Day landings and wielded weapons. The panting group of men exhorted on by Henry – now stripped to vest and dogtags, and bloodied – drew strength from his words. In many ways this was a relatively straight adaptation, acknowledging the importance of male bonds in a time of war. The Williams/Bates scene, while well acted, was surprisingly uncontroversial, and its resolution accepted happily and unproblematically by Ben Allen’s Williams, who clutched his bag of gold with no small pleasure.

Contrasting with this was the experience of the play’s women. The second half began with a comic take on the French scene, with a heavily made-up Karl Davies sitting in a bathtub while Chris Myles’s Alice – in military skirt and beret – helped her wash. A group of soldiers in sunglasses sat or knelt around the bath, tutting when she got words wrong and holding up mirrors for her removal. The coquettish and flirtatious private Katherine contrasted with the more demure version presented in public in the final scene, which Bruce-Lockhart handled exceptionally. Katherine offered a perfect mix of stand-offishness and half-smiles, and the scene culminated in a sweet sequence as the two sat together on an altar and Henry hopped along it to sit closer to her.

Yet while the play’s patriotism and romance plot followed familiar lines, the critique beneath remained the play’s true heart. After his ruthless beating by Tony Bell’s brusque Fluellen (and the very real eating of a raw leek), Pistol complained quietly of the death of Nym and Bardolph, before pulling out the plastic heart of the dead Doll, to calls of sympathy from the audience. More moving, however, was the reaction to the reading of the dead. Henry’s soldiers initially reacted with shouts of pleasure to the number of the French dead before, under instruction, listening with respect to the names of the French. The English dead were heard with more severity, the soldiers holding tightly onto one another before releasing with relief at so short a list and falling to their knees. However, Asbury’s Montjoy was kept onstage for the entire time, and his initial discomfort collapsed into open sobbing over the course of the speeches in the play’s most moving sequence. The experience of one Frenchman threw into relief the posturing of the English, not invalidating either experience but suggesting rather a division in the understanding of loss.

The play’s end saw Henry kneeling with Katherine, then standing, handing his crown to her and walking out. As the company began the Epilogue, the crown was placed on the altar which became a coffin, a lament for the now-absent King. The fact that this company has, of course, already performed Rose Rage and Richard III made sense of the Chorus’s point that it has already shown the loss caused – in this case, in its abattoir-set productions that took the dissociated violence of this production and created something even more brutal. It was a sobering end to a rich and thoroughly entertaining performance.

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