A breath of fresh air

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Michelle Terry as Henry. Photo by Tristram Kenton

 

Henry V, Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park.

The last time I wrote about a production of Henry V (see here), I said that it responded to the times in which it was performed to a greater degree than most plays. In this utterly brilliant production, we are shown that who leads us can be a matter of whim and fluke, and that even when the various nations of the United Kingdom are supposed to be fighting the French, they will inevitably also end up arguing with each other. In light of events this week, I’m standing by my earlier statement.

The play begins with the actors walking on stage in ordinary clothes, to hear Charlotte Cornwall’s watchful, no-nonsense Chorus deliver the prologue. At the end she picks up the crown, and walks through the cast, deliberating who it should be given to – ignoring the posturing men, she instead crowns the almost mouse-like Michelle Terry. (Yes, a woman – we’ll come to that in a minute). It’s a great reminder that, of course, the real Henry V wasn’t born to be king – he suddenly found himself the heir to a throne his father had just seized. It emphasises beautifully one of the themes of the play, that of Henry learning to be a ruler.

So, the woman question. Does it work to have a female Henry? My answer is a resounding yes – as far as I can see, there are only gains from this. The biggest gain is getting to see someone of Michelle Terry’s immense talent play this great role. She’s completely mesmerising. There are also gains in terms of the interpretation of the play. Suddenly, the rather long and frankly dull scene at the start about whether the Salic law (which bans female inheritance) applies to France has resonance and meaning.  During the speech threatening the residents of Harfleur with dreadful consequences, you wonder, can this tiny little figure in combat fatigues really mean all that? But of course, that’s the point: the people of Harfleur can’t know that either. Terry’s sardonic grin at the end of this speech shows her Henry knows this too. Incidentally, by that point, I’d largely forgotten that this was a role usually played by a man anyway.

As you will have guessed from the reference to combat fatigues, this is a modern dress production, with guns replacing swords – I’m not always sure about modern dress Shakespeare – it can feel like a cheap way for the director to make a political point – but here it works.  Along with a few judicious cuts to the text, it makes for a dynamic and pacey production.

Terry’s isn’t the only piece of gender-blind/gender- bending casting. The quartet of arguing army captains from across the British Isles – Shakespeare’s own version of the old ‘a Welshman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a pub’ joke – are all played by women, with Catrin Aaron particularly strong as Fluellen.  We also have a male Princess Katherine (Ben Wiggins – very strong in both this role and his other part as The Boy: keep an eye on this one, he should go far).

I wondered whether this gender reversal affected the interpretation of the wooing scene, which brought out something that’s always worried me about it. It’s usually played purely for laughs, as a sweet end to a sometimes brutal play, but in reality, Katherine has no choice: she’s about to be signed over to Henry by treaty, whether she likes it or not. In this version, that tension is apparent – there’s a great moment when Terry points to the treaty, laid out for the kings to sign, just to ram the point home. Would a conventionally gendered production have had the courage to go down this route, or would the potential to show our heroic Henry as just another male brute have made them shy away from it?

This is a production full  of original interpretations of well-known scenes, and they all pay off. The famous pre-Agincourt St Crispin’s Day speech is delivered as a desperate (and successful) plea to a soldier who has taken up the offer of a passport home, and is halfway out of the arena. I also loved Jack McMullen’s chippy Scouse Williams (the man Henry has an argument with while in disguise), Beruce Khan’s Geordie Nym and Jessica Regan’s sarcastic Montjoy. Alex Bhat’s Dauphin is played as a wonderful cross between Kevin the teenager and an English Hooray Henry (or should that be a Hooray Boris, given this week’s news?)

This was my first visit to the Open Air Theatre (despite the fact that I lived in London for 15 years..) and I was amazed that the cast managed these wonderful, often subtle and detailed performances on a Saturday afternoon, despite the distractions of unreliable weather and low flying planes, and without the benefit of lighting.

If you ever want to convince a doubter of the power of theatre to move, this is the kind of play you should take them to. Go and see it if you possibly can.

Henry V runs until 9th July: http://openairtheatre.com/production/henry-v

 

 

Something is sweet in the state of Denmark

Hamlet picture - Paapa Essiedu
Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet. Photo by Manuel Harlan, (c) RSC

 

Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company, Live From Stratford-upon-Avon

It’s probably Shakespearean heresy, but I’ve never been that fond of Hamlet. Yes, it has some great speeches (although I prefer ‘What a piece of work is man’ to ‘To be or not to be’ – heresy again, probably), but I’ve always found the Dane himself a bit, well, annoying. For a complex and fascinating character, presenting a challenge for an actor, give me Richard III any day. And that’s before you get onto the misogynistic treatment of the women in the play.

However, I cannot resist the rise of a new theatrical star, and all the heat and light coming out of Stratford recently suggests that the RSC has found one in Paapa Essiedu, its’ latest Hamlet. Did he deliver? Oh, yes, and then some.

Essiedu is a remarkable find. At the age of 25, he has the confidence to take some of the most famous words in the English language by the scruff of the neck and make it do his bidding. This is a blazing performance – and one which did actually make me feel sympathy for that difficult prince. Essiedu’s youth is key part of this. An inserted scene at the beginning of the play shows us Hamlet’s graduation, and reminds us just how young this man is – barely an adult himself, he has to deal with the death of his father, and his own return to a home he no longer feels at home in, thanks to his mother’s re-marriage. Essiedu shows us Hamlet’s grief at these twin losses in all it’s red-eyed, tear-streaked and snotty nosed rawness. The combination of paralysing grief and youth makes his Hamlet suddenly understandable – that combination of arrogance, insecurity and cruelty which would be downright irritating in anyone old enough to know better is to be pitied in such a young man.

Although you can’t have Hamlet without the prince, a production carried by him alone would be unsatisfactory – fortunately, Essiedu is backed up by an excellent cast and a well-thought out production.  The action is translated from chilly northern Europe to Africa, with Claudius as a tin-pot dictator, making his first appearance in a military uniform with too much gold braid. This is a play which comes with more ghosts than just the one on stage – all those famous past productions can haunt as effectively as Hamlet’s father – but this take by director Simon Godwin re-vitalises it beautifully. The lighting and the soundtrack of cicadas give us the impression of a hot and claustrophobic court, in which the thread of madness which runs through the play makes perfect sense. The music, based around African drumming, adds yet another dimension, almost becoming a character in itself. The touch of having Hamlet sport the picture of his father than he refers to in the closet scene with Gertrude as a tattoo on his chest is inspired – and not just because Essiedu taking off his shirt is A Good Thing. Ahem.

In the cast, there are almost too many good performances to pick out: From Cyril Nri’s bumbling, embarrassing dad Polonius to Clarence Smith’s Claudius and Marcus Griffiths’ blazing Laertes, all the way to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These two are played by James Cooney and Bethan Cullinane as lost tourists who have no idea what they have got themselves into. They bring real individuality to two of Shakespeare’s most famously forgettable characters. I still have issues with the play’s female characters, but both Tanya Moodie as Gertrude and Natalie Simpson as Ophelia do sterling work to make their characters more than mere archetypes.

I’m not sure I will ever get excited about a new Hamlet in the way I do with a new Richard III or Prospero – but thanks to this production, I have made my peace with the Dane.

Hamlet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 13 August – for more information go to: https://www.rsc.org.uk/hamlet/