‘A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!’ Act I, Prologue, Henry V
This Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (STF) production situates Henry V in a brutally modern setting, and in mirroring our own times provides commentary that is just as salient now as it was in 1599. As long as hierarchy, government and state exist, this play’s disturbing insights and dark undertones are applicable, as it is clear that our current political climate is no different. The patterns and problems we see repeat themselves endlessly; the same questions are asked and mistakes made, from the 17th century to the Vietnam War.
The opening half-hour of the play is rather dry, though how much this has to do with the script, filled as it is with elaborate set-up and long, diplomatic meetings, and how much to do with this production is hard to say. We are thrust into a world of suits and briefcases as courtly politics are given a modern-day spin. Joanne Howarth as the Chorus does a great job of guiding the audience through the early stages of the play, although Heledd Gwynn’s appearance as a slyly languid, lilac-suited, Doc-sporting Dauphin/Katherine hybrid provides a welcome breath of fresh air. The decision to mesh the two roles together as one is bold, with a big payoff - this Katherine is lively, arrogant, and likeable, unlike the play’s original French princess who is merely the political pawn, or the dauphin who though headstrong, is foolish and unsuited to leadership. What’s more, we are given a woman’s voice throughout this play, a key player who, right up until the very last scenes, has little sexual currency but rather her own political agency. It is not as Shakespeare intended, but neither does it feel out of place - rather, strangely natural in this modern take.
Director Elizabeth Freestone delicately balances the personal and political. The iconic war scenes of the play feel fresh and immediate, helped by Lily Arnold’s design of simple moveable sets and the in-the-round set up of the Tobacco Factory itself. Simple costume (Jane Curnow), is used to great effect, as the small cast of characters switch from English peasants to French nobles before our eyes, letting the quality of the acting speak for itself. We see Ben Hall’s Henry gain confidence and respect throughout this production, plagued as he is by uncertainties and rash decisions - he has not yet lost the young, hot-headed tendencies of Prince Hal, though now he must try to play the part of Henry V. Visibly shaken and emotionally affected by the events around him, this Henry is not a stoic warrior-king but a young man negotiating the new limits and pitfalls of power, and is all the more likeable for it.
With the transition to the final scenes, a sombre latin hymn sung by the cast, paired with the draping of the flags over a tomb-like structure laid about with garlands, conjure a setting we are all too familiar with - that of a war memorial. If anywhere it was at this moment that the play’s modern-day reimagining had its greatest effect, reinforcing both the horrific cost and the grim mundanity of war that has become such a part of our culture. These latter scenes were taut and tense, balanced on a knife-point as the French and English circled each other round the central podium, the dead ever-present between them.
As we left the theatre, there was a chalkboard where audience members could write their comments about the play. Gratingly, the first comment, written large at the top of the board, insisted that its author ‘liked their Shakespeare pure - no gimmicks’, and that much of the productions re-imagining had reduced the impact of the play. In fact, I’d argue that this kind of Shakespeare couldn’t be purer, presented as we are with the grief and rage and passion of our own times, as the bard mirrored his own. This STF production’s nuanced and highly considered take on class, power and the nature of leadership was no gimmick - instead it was imbued with a sense of directness and urgency that seemed to speak to our own times, and all times.