Pros: It is rare to find a decent, condensed version of any Shakespeare play. Director Helen Oakleigh does a good job of keeping all the important elements of Henry V, without entirely losing the plot.
Cons: The parts of the performance at the opposite end of The Rose were lit up only by torchlight whilst the vast space made it difficult to hear what was being said.
You may already be familiar with the historical significance of The Rose Theatre. The first theatre built on Bankside, it predates even The Globe situated just a few feet away. The entrance to the theatre is deceivingly tiny and you are greeted by a huge inside space, including a vast pool of water which is lit up by red rope lights and separates the two stages. Richard Stride leads the small cast of four in the Groundlings Theatre Company’s latest production of Henry V. His big personality means he is able to take on several roles throughout the production, frequently jumping between Henry, Pistol and a number of other characters. Stride is supported by Oliver Gyani, director Helen Oakleigh and Pete Hill who plays the keyboard throughout.
The script is set in the early 15th century where King Henry V has just become King of England following the death of his father, King Henry IV. He decides to invade France after the Dauphin of France challenges his claim over certain parts of the country. He gathers as many of his countrymen as he can, including former drinking buddies Bardolph, Pistol and Nim. Following their journey to France, the English are victorious in their first battle and we hear Henry’s famous speech spurring on the troops ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead’. With the French outnumbering the English by five to one, the English win is miraculous. It is subsequently agreed that King Henry will marry Catherine, the daughter of the French king, in the hope of a peaceful union between the two countries.
Puppetry is often used during the performance and Oakleigh and Gyani frequently hide behind masks as they act alongside Stride. Stride himself makes a concerted effort to involve the audience by sitting next to individuals or escorting them onto the stage to perform as prisoners about to be beheaded. The French King (voiced by Gyani with a passable French accent) is bizzarely denoted by a large puppet sat on a stately throne. The puppetry is not a problem at all however, with the main issue actually being the staging. Although the Groundlings use the stage overlooking the site for most of the action, it becomes difficult to follow when the action takes place across the venue’s dig site. Each puppet captain’s voice is provided without a microphone in this vicinity, making them somewhat difficult to hear. For those not familiar with the story of Henry V, a state of confusion during these scenes would be unsurprising.
Director Helen Oakleigh has managed to produce a worthy condensed version of Henry V. Although the staging could have been improved, The Rose Theatre is a fantastic but challenging venue choice for the piece. This was a hilariously performed production and the audience involvement offered an approach to Shakespeare which was completely new to me. What I did wrestle with however, was with whether the exceptionally bloody war of Henry V should have been adapted into a comedy at all.
Author: William Shakespeare
Producers: Groundlings Theatre Company
Director: Helen Oakleigh
Playing until: 26 July 2014
Box Office: 020 7261 9565
Booking link: http://www.wegottickets.com/rosetheatre