“Henry the Fifth”

at the Unicorn Theatre, Thursday 7th November 2013

“All boys want to be king,” Abdul Salis tells us by way of introduction to the story of Henry the Fifth. Not least is this true of Shane Zanza’s petulant, boyish monarch of the title, who wants nothing more in life than a “crown, power, and war”. Shakespeare’s Henry V is often presented as a fervent call-to-arms for Englishmen, as an acknowledgement that, though ‘we’ may sometimes fall by the wayside and undergo moral quagmires in times of war, goddamnit we win in the end. Ellen McDougall’s production of Ignace Cornelissen’s text (based very loosely on the Bard’s history), however, is concerned with nothing of the sort. What we are presented with is a complex, witty, theatrical presentation of the complexities of masculinity, of war, and of narration. And this is a show for kids, for Christ’s sake.

As inhabitants of England, it can often be easy to forget that Henry V is produced all over the world in multiple contexts, taking ‘England’ and ‘France’ as metaphors for opposing sides rather than literal places. Interestingly, Cornelissen is Belgian (this version has been translated by Purni Morell), which begs a question: how is this story viewed and presented by other nations? A brilliant moment at the close of the opening speech hints towards this idea of multiple narratives. Salis mentions the story is about a king called “Henry”, and three actors appear from the wings asking “Which one?” in unison. “The fifth,” Salis replies, and the others retreat. In one moment, then, the whole idea of one singular history is undermined, suggesting that there are a plurality of voices, of stories, of interpretations.

Henry the Fifth takes this idea and runs with it, as the Narrator (a stand-in for Shakespeare’s Chorus) takes us through the story, pointing out to characters that he knows how the story ends but cannot reveal it in case he loses his “thread”. Interestingly, the three protagonists – Henry, Katherine (Hannah Boyde) and the Distant Cousin (Rhys Rusbatch) – react to this information in different ways. Henry seems to be nonplussed by the idea of an all-seeing narrator, doesn’t question it and just gets on with it by accepting that “everybody dies”. Rusbatch also accepts that the narrator has control, but refuses to believe in his objectivity, exclaiming that “You’re just as involved as everybody else”. It is Katherine who offers the radical alternative to singular narrative, however, by flat-out rejecting a predefined narrative path and taking control of her own. There’s a hint of Matilda’s Naughty‘ in these actions, and it’s a gorgeously revolutionary idea to be suggesting not only to kids, but to all of us.

This choice then puts Katherine at the centre of this narrative, as we see the rest of the story through her eyes. The boys end up squabbling over petty sandcastles, popping one another’s balloons with toy swords. We see just how pathetic the desires and actions are of the Kings of France and England; when it’s suggested that they just sit down and talk, all we hear is “Don’t be ridiculous”.

Add to that the stripped-back aesthetic of McDougall’s production and you get a rich, layered take on history. Though James Button’s design is reminiscent of childhood, with its huge signs and its “Old Tale-coat”, the experience is one of maturing, with Hannah Boyde’s heroine moving from girlish princess to worldly young woman. Even Emma Luxton’s sound design achieves a kind of growth, moving from full(ish) orchestration to more contemplative strings.

By asking us to use our imaginations, too, McDougall’s production ensures that we put in much of the work, taking control of the narrative like Katherine. What we see is a line of balloons strung together (enchanting in itself), but we imagine marching hordes. Instead of regal attire, a simple leather jacket has to do. This necessity of audience co-authoring the piece runs right to the end, when Katherine throws the flimsy crown in the air, which can be read as either triumphant victory or a flat-out rejection of the notion of monarchy (no prizes for guessing how I read that).

Henry the Fifth asks questions whilst also being theatrically engrossing. And it never patronises. Instead, it treats us all equally and gives everyone the same opportunity for co-creation as it attempts to demonstrate the complications of history. Sure, it’s made for the younger generations, but there’s something we can all take from this, as Salis points out before the action begins proper: “Nothing like this could ever happen now. Could it?”

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