Tag Archives: History

“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. Continue reading “Henry the Fifth”


“Henry VI” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Sunday 25th August 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

During the opening moment of Harry the Sixth, a lone woman (Mary Doherty) sings an ethereal funeral dirge. On Sunday, however, after the first few bars soared, one note slipped out of her grasp a few bars in. The day before, the company performed all three parts of Henry VI in the rain at Barnet (one of the battlefield locations in the plays), and now have to do it all again; six productions in thirty-six hours in adverse conditions leads to a few strained voices. The actors perform brilliantly given the circumstances, but this faltering seems to me to be representative of the productions as a whole, which have a lot of ambition and ooze with energy, but often fail to hit their marks.

Each part of the trilogy (here referred to as Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York respectively) Continue reading “Henry VI” by William Shakespeare

“Democracy” by Michael Frayn

at the Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 25th July 2012

History, supposedly, died at the fall of the USSR and the reunification of Germany. If there’s anything the ideological discussions and revolutions of the past few years have taught us, however, (and let’s be honest, some idiots haven’t learnt enough from these events), it’s that history is far from over. The ideas presented in Paul Miller’s production of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, though set before the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrate to audiences in 2012 that the debates which began in 70s Europe are far from over.

There is something mildly Shakespearean about Frayn’s 2003 play; an historical era is used to reflect a contemporary one, the play spans vastly over time and space, and the language has a poetic rhythm to it, elevating the central characters. But more than all this, we are treated to not one, but two tragic heroes. The Chancellor Willy Brandt and his aide Gunter Guillaume both fit into the tragic mould, for they each believe they are doing what they believe to be right even though everything around the pair conspires against them. Miller’s production is presented in such a way which mimics this epic quality, playing the text at breakneck speed and using little more than the characters and words to demonstrate time and place.

References to coalition politics within the play naturally assume a relevance, but it is particularly the themes surrounding the cult of personality and backhanded politics which are most intriguing. Politics has always fetishised personalities, but it is only since the dawn of photography and subsequently television that leaders have become chosen for who they are rather than what they do. Willy Brandt sits on the boundary, keen to make a genuine difference to the lives of his citizens but fully aware that in the world of politics, the man with the camera is king. Some of the most memorable moments in Democracy are (smartly), those which recreate infamous images of Brandt whilst his advisers watch in amazement.

The underhand politics which occur, epitomised by Helmut Schmidt and Herbert Wehner (the slimy and stern David Mallinson and William Hoyland), is countered by the Shakespearean semi-soliliquies given to Brandt and Guillaume. They reject the party politics of those around them in favour of a more ideological, hopeful agenda, which Frayn demonstrates is possible even though the pair have human flaws. Craftily, the two spies of the piece – Guillaume and Arno Kretschmann (marvelously underplayed by Ed Hughes) – are the two who seem most open to the audience; though they are working behind others’ backs, at least they have nothing to hide from us. That is far from the truth in the case of Brandt’s sinister advisers.

Aidan McArdle’s performance as Guillaume is gloriously comic, allowing his humanity and awe to shine through. His stocky viciousness is contrasted beautifully with Patrick Drury’s towering, gentle Brandt; and though they rarely look into one another’s eyes, the connection clearly runs deep. Miller’s smart staging uses Simon Daw’s stylish design to high effect; though only one entrance exists, characters file in and out without pause, and an almost stylised, methodical way of moving around the stage is broken by various characters at key moments. Mark Doubleday’s lighting is ever-shifting, just like the playing spaces on which Brandt and his government act.

Democracy shows Michael Frayn at the height of his powers as a dramatist, and manages to mingle entertainment, drama and political comment to startling effect. Miller’s production offers an economically created world and is balanced in its presentation of these historical figures. And, though the realisation of this world is complete and exists in isolation, it is its relation to today’s political world which makes it so compelling.

“Henry VI Part 3” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Sunday 13th May 2012

As someone who is of a generation whose collective memory kicks in just as peace was being restored to the Balkans, it’s easy to forget the region’s turbulent past. Henry VI Part 3, presented by the National Theatre Bitola in Macedonian, manages to remind us of these terrible wars whilst maintaining a light-hearted tone, commenting on and joking about the nature of conflict.

John Blondell’s production is smart, stylish and slick. In a pared back and intelligent aesthetic, everyone wears a deep blue, with accessories to determine whether their allegiance is to York or Lancaster. Heightened violence mixed with a brutal honesty keeps the battle scenes sharp, but when necessary we are left alone with the characters and the words to allow Shakespeare and the actors to work their magic.

The divisions here are clearly along family lines, and care has been taken to make relationships between the characters truthful. Edward (Ogne Drangovski), Richard (a vicious terrier-like Martin Mirchevski) and George (Filip Mirchevski – the brother of Martin, I assume) are a brilliant trio, and their roles are balanced perfectly. In contrast to Drangovski’s laddish Edward is Peter Gorko’s gentle, wise Henry VI, tired of the fighting but egged on by those around him.

Most impressive in this production are the women. When Gabriela Petrushevska’s marvellously persuasive and headstrong Margaret meets with Sonja Mihajlova’s manipulative Warwick and Kristina Hristova Nikolova’s flamboyant Lewis of France, we are treated to one of the best scenes in the production. Their initial hostility quickly becomes a realisation of their shared power, acting as metaphor for the role of women in conflict.

What makes this production so successful, then, is the way it handles contrast: men with women; peace with war; funny with serious; real with surreal; solitude with madness. This hinges on the soliloquies of Henry and Richard towards the end of the first act, delivered with wit and eloquence, underscored neatly by Miodgrag Nećak. And though the thought that what we are witnessing is a putting to rest of the Balkan’s difficult past is probably aided by the presence of the Albanian and Serbian companies earlier in the day, it can’t be helped considering these complex and wide-ranging plays as allegories for the not-so-distant past.

“King John” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Thursday 19th April 2012

Arguably, it is only when witnessing a Shakespeare play in performance for the first time that we truly realise the Bard’s genius not only as a poet but also as a dramatist. This unknown quality is partly the reason for the success of Maria Aberg’s production of King John, but her superb direction is the main cause. The performance takes us everywhere theatre should, whilst throwing in some panache in the process.

The story, which deals with the turbulent relationship between England and France during John’s reign, here becomes a parable of family politics. Two families try to reconcile all by presenting the other with a suitor who shall be married to one another. From the superlative wedding scene onwards, however, individual arrogance and pride gets in the way and more than one death weighs on the minds of the participants.

By setting the play in what seems to represent a modern village hall, Aberg brings these familial tensions to the fore. The amount of rubbish on Naomi Dawson’s staired set correlates negatively with the number of people on stage at any one point, putting us in mind of those parties which wear on into the early hours of the morning, which see relationships break down and the truth spilt (though maybe not multiple deaths).

Adding to this is the decision to change the genders of the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) and the Cardinal Pandulph (the menacing Paola Dionisotti), meaning the women of this play are just as instrumental in events as the men. Although this is being deemed as the show’s USP, however, we forget the two roles were initially male; a hymn to gender blind casting if ever there was one.

More impressive is a fantastic cast who manage to give the words power without actually acting like the nobility the script dictates. The wide-eyed Nixon is fantastic, leading the audience through the twists and turns of the narrative and gaining our trust from the moment she steps onto stage to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the ukulele (a nice touch). In Alex Waldmann, she has a worthy partner, and he portrays John with calm passion, debunking the name of ‘bad’ he has been given. Good support is provided by Siobhan Redmond’s wise Elinor, Oscar Pearce’s somewhat idiotic Dauphin, Susie Trayling’s steely Constance and John Stahl’s sturdy King Philip, while

Aberg’s stagecraft is masterful. The wedding scene is frenzied in its drunken fluidity, and it countered beautiful by the final scenes towards the end of the play, shouted across the auditorium from the balconies. John’s death scene is like no other, and the production is soundtracked brilliantly by Carolyn Downing, who uses everything from Rihanna to Dirty Dancing. David Holmes’ blazing and striking lighting adds to the feeling of tragedy.

By making the play contemporary, Aberg also manages to comment on current discussions about Scotland’s place in Britain. We see that, although union between countries (like that between England and Scotland) can seem like a desirable thing to begin with, underlying tensions and differences means a permanent union is impossible (especially if one country attempts to take more control). More than anything, however, this is a deeply affecting production which reaches astonishing levels of emotion. King John is by a long shot the best thing the Royal Shakespeare Company is showing this season, and is perhaps the best thing they’ve produced since The Merchant of Venice last year. Though if you were silly enough not to enjoy that, this probably isn’t for you.

“Emperor and Galilean” by Henrik Ibsen

in a new version by Ben Power

at the Olivier Theatre, Tuesday 12th July 2011

In a time of sweeping revolution in the Middle East, which many of us liberal-minded people applaud unquestioningly, we should also question the effect on the populations of the turbulent nations. Transition periods can be a difficult time, causing violence and confusion, and Henrik Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean in a new version by Ben Power at the National Theatre asks us to reflect more seriously on the nature of conflict.

Director Jonathan Kent doesn’t shy away from the theme of religion in the play, but rather than making grand statements about what it true and what is false in our now secular society, the opposing sides of Christianity and paganism become metaphors for arbitrary sides chosen by competitors, who stick dogmatically to their beliefs. Power’s text, which has shortened Ibsen’s original twelve-hour version to little over three, puts all the attention on Julian, allowing history to take place around him, leaving him all but powerless. In Julian we are given a Macbeth-like figure, who rises to the position of Emperor after it is prophesied by Maximus, even though his friends try to dissuade him from doing so.

There’s one major incongruity in Kent’s production; the world of paganism is shown to be full of colour and verve, but Christianity is pious and monochrome. This goes against Ibsen’s central message, which seems to suggest a defence of Christianity, especially in the final scenes. Then again, perhaps this inability to present a suspended argument is Ibsen’s fault, considering earlier on in the play he suggests that “everything beautiful [and] everything human [is] forbidden” by Christians.

Paul Brown’s design incorporates the best use of the Olivier’s revolve stage that I’ve seen. New aspects are revealed with each scene, constantly surprising and paying homage to the epic nature of the play. It is supported by Nina Dunn’s brazen and violent video design, projecting huge, god-like images of soldiers and war. Mark Henderson’s lighting is just as epic, allowing for startling entrances and ominous exits, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design, although peculiar at times, is still powerful.

Among the huge cast are some stand-out performances. Genevieve O’Reilly as Helena, Julian’s wife, is particularly affecting in the moments before her death, and James McArdle as Agathon acts as the common man, allowing us low-born audience members a way in to the pop of courtly life. Ian McDiarmid’s Maximus starts of a little distant, but soon becomes a powerful and omnipresent force. It is Andrew Scott, however, in the central role of Julian, who impresses most. On stage for almost the entire length of the play, he gives an astonishing performance, believing himself to be a deity but remaining remarkably human. His dilemma is fascinating, and gets our brains whirring.

The National Theatre was right to revive this oft-forgotten Ibsen epic. It represents a time between his nationalist and domestic eras which isn’t remembered enough, and asks us to question current and past events. The modern dress brings the play right up-to-date, not at all jarringly, and shows that even playwrights normally associated with the minutiae of life can more than happily turn their hand to epic once in a while.

“Henry IV, Parts One and Two” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Wednesday 14th July 2010

It just goes on and on. Will it ever stop? How long can this last? Surely we won’t have to endure that much more? These were just a few of the questions being asked by the audience at Shakespeare’s Globe during the press performances of Henry IV Parts One and Two, but not about the shows. No, these questions were directed at that ever-mysterious beast; the weather, and more specifically, rain. Pathetic fallacy always seems like such a good idea, but can be a royal pain in practice. Whilst us groundlings wanted the rain to stop, we would have happily watched Dominic Dromgoole’s outstanding productions for a lot longer than the already lengthy six and a half hours.

These two history plays are arguably some of Shakespeare’s most accomplished, tackling both politics and relationships and successfully mixing the stories of Henry IV’s crumbling court, Hal and Falstaff’s bawdy and the various rebellions which spring up around the country. We are asked moral questions about what is right and wrong but are also treated to some of the funniest scenes in the entire canon.

Henry IV has never had a stable kingdom, and even straight after his deposing of Richard II, he is already “wan with care”. A rebellion led by Harry “Hotspur” Percy and later by his allies tries to unseat the king. Meanwhile Hal, the king’s son, enjoys riotous sessions in the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap with his friend and mentor Sir John Falstaff, but slowly pulls himself away from his irreverent friends as he understands that he is to be the future king. In Dromgoole’s production the contrasts are clearly highlighted, and whilst in Part One there is never really the sense that the King’s power is already sliding away from him, there is an overall sense that he is an inadequate king, highlighted by Oliver Cotton’s portrayal of a weak and short-tempered monarch.

The wild, colourful scenes in Eastcheap pose a striking contrast to the darkness of the court and Hotspur’s rebellion in Part One. All that matters to the publicans is food and drink, but a lot more is at stake when it comes to the crown. Sam Crane as Hotspur holds an erratic tenacity and seems at times to be close to mad. There is even a hint of effeminacy, explaining his blunt rejection of his wife. Nevertheless, we still feel an immense sympathy for him after his sudden death; Henry IV and his son deserved the crown no more than he.

Shrewsbury Field, the battle in Part One, becomes an epic fight, although whether this was simply the production or the added special effect of heavy rain I will never know. They probably complemeted each other. Chaos descends upon the kingdom and from this moment Henry IV’s fate as king is sealed. His reign will not last much longer, unlike, it seems, the actual rain, and when watching this production we feel little sympathy for him.

Many complain that Part Two does not hold the dramatic weight and historical significance found in the prequel, but this production proves that notion to be false. The second part is just as funny, paced and tense as the first, and has some beautiful moments woven into the story. Dromgoole’s production focuses on Falstaff’s story here and squeezes out every possible laugh without making the gags feel overdone. The famous recruitment scene does not disappoint, and William Gaunt as Shallow here deservedly attracts the biggest laughs.

Throughout, Jamie Parker as Prince Hal moves from naïve teen through to warrior, prince and finally king. It would be wrong to say that he does so effortlessly, for Parker shows clearly how Hal struggles to move on from his friends in the tavern, and therefore makes it clear that in fact as lot of effort is involved for the prince. He is a jovial Hal, but always seems to understand, even from the very beginning, that he must at some point move on. The few scenes with his father are played with remarkable sensitivity but are still distant and his final rejection of Falstaff means that I may be arguing for some time that this is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the Shakespeare. I ask here for one thing: we need Jamie Parker as Henry V at some point in the near future.

Most outstanding is Roger Allam as the infamous Falstaff, bringing out the wit and intellect of this loveable rogue. Falstaff has always been a tricky part to play because his moral corruption contradicts his loyalty to others, but Allam is able to get the entire audience on his side and captures this dichotomy with aplomb. His speech asking “What is honour?” is delivered perfectly, showing Falstaff’s sensitive side, and after his rejection by Hal, all our hearts go straight to Old Jack. Without wanting to hyperbolise, this is a Falstaff that will be remembered for years.

These productions are both delivered with such passion that it is hard not to be enthralled by every moment. Easy to understand, the many layers of Shakespeare’s writing are also clear to pick out. The ensemble of actors, some of whom play six or seven parts clearly enjoy themselves the whole way through and pull together to create this wonderful world amongst Jonathan Fensom’s wooden scaffolding set which evokes both a playground and a battlefield at the same time. Claire van Kampen’s music is also completely necessary, telling us where we are but also underscoring some of the more emotional scenes. Indeed, it is hard to find fault with any aspect of this production.

If you see one thing this summer, see this.