Thank goodness a company has stepped up to the mark to criticise England amid the throng clamouring to declare their undying love for the country. In his production of Henry V, Edward Hall shows us that the king is not as much of a hero as me may like him to be; here, he is a tyrant, not caring about anything but his own lust for power and prestige.
The play is performed by a modern-day band of brothers, dressed in khaki and donning costumes which are collected from a range of centuries. Michael Pavelka’s scaffold set is made to feel like an oppressive box, and acts as a container for these boys and their toys. In true Propellor style, scene changes are fantastic and underlined with an eclectic soundtrack (which includes London Calling).
Hall demonstrates that male camaraderie should not be praised so highly, as these men unwaveringly take the lives of others in order to seem more masculine. Dugland Bruce-Lockart’s Henry, a little older than most who play the role, and looking like a slim Kenneth Branagh, is actually quite terrifying, presiding over the other men with only experience to fall back on. He worms his way into people’s pockets with a deceitful charm before snapping at them at the slightest hint of betrayal.
It does feel like there is a neglect of an overall aesthetic, which would be forgiven if more were made of the framing device of soldiers producing a play, and the decision hasn’t quite been made as to whether an audience is supposed to laugh or not, meaning we feel unnecessarily aware of our reactions. Nevertheless, the show is slick and pacey (though the second act feels about ten minutes too long) and Ben Ormerod offers up some impressive lighting during the battle scenes.
This being an ensemble company in the truest sense, it’s difficult to pick out performances, but Chris Myles’ Exeter is quietly menacing and Nick Asbury’s Montjoy has a slimy quietude; his descent into a gibbering wreck at the close of the play is astonishing. As Pistol, Bardolph and the Boy, Vince Leigh, Gary Shelford and Karl Davies are a brilliant threesome, making their demise all the more tragic.
Hall is not afraid here to suggest that England has drifted dangerously close to tyranny in the past, and by setting the framing device in a modern war zone he tells us not to let our guard down. By showing Henry V to be a play about tyranny, it brings it in line with the likes of Macbeth and Richard III, asking us to re-examine England’s influence and behaviour on the contemporary world stage.