Tuesday, 31 August 1999

Henry V, Bell Shakepseare, 31 Aug 1999

by William Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare Company Athenaeum 1 until September 18, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is difficult to make slaughter appear heroic in these times. We cannot picture balmy fields filled with sword-wielding knights of the realm without imagining the bodies after the battle. Too much television war has spoiled our romanticising of death and patriotism.

In order to enjoy Shakespeare's history plays then, we needs must suspend our 20th century cynicism, pacifism and any related squeamishness about severed limbs and pools of blood.

John Bell's clever, albeit blokey production of Henry V once again provides a clear, consistent and colourful vision for Shakespeare. It is plumped firmly into the midst of World War One, with soldiers in both British and French infantry uniform singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Mademoiselle from Armentiers".

The period is clearly embedded in the design (Michelle Fallon) which uses English Music Hall complete with piano, footlights and red velvet drapes, combined with an army recruiting office and its backdrop declaring, "For God, King and Country"

Bell's production manages to be both comic and tragic. He polishes Shakespeare's own jokes and digs up a few ripe new ones. These pepper the gruesome Agincourt scenes and the long speeches by various lords and the king.

The first half is less certain than the second that romps along. Bell captures the tension, the interminable waiting for battle, the trepidation and self-doubt of the young king as well as his jubilation and nationalism.

Bell also mocks the French mercilessly. They sip champagne as they go into battle, are too lazy even to answer a telephone and boast about their armour. It must be by St Laurent.

One highlight is the stylishly choreographed battle scene (Gavin Robins) in which soldiers fall only to rise and fall again, tumbling over bodies, leaping into each others arms and being rolled and piled and hauled like carcasses.

Another highlight is the final courting scene between Henry (Joel Edgerton) and the high-spirited French Princess, Katherine, played by a magnetic Paula Arundell

Edgerton who also played Henry IV, plays this "plain king" as a patriot, a soldier and a lad with a romantic vision. He is well supported by a fine ensemble including the resonant tones of Rhyss McConnochie, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Terry Bader, Richard Piper and Mark Brady who provide a host of delightful French and English characters.

by Kate Herbert

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