Who would have thought, in the early part of the 21st century, that a piece of uninspiring, corporate remote meeting software would come to play a huge part in our cultural lives? But here we are. Zoom theatre, the result of forcing audiences on to the internet, has definitely become a thing. And on the evidence of their Henry V, few people can have grasped its potential as fully and well as the Guildford Shakespeare Company. Their crisp hour-long online version of everyone’s favourite History Play is a high-quality, technically impressive affair. We are on familiar, crowd-pleasing territory too. Crowns, check. Castles, yes. Swords, on point. Plus all the big speeches and set pieces are present and correct. This is a faithful take on Shakespeare that felt wholly appropriate to watch on the big guy’s birthday.
The most pleasing aspect of the production is undoubtedly the irresistible enthusiasm with which the cast set about their work. Being stuck at home, presumably, in front of a green screen with just a camera for company does not stop them projecting 1,000 Mega-Watts of energy into our living rooms. There are just five of them too. Gavin Fowler makes a winning boyish Hal. Emily Tucker, Paula James, Chris Porter and Matt Pinches tackle everyone else. Porter and Pinches, as Pistol and Fluellen, probably have the most fun. Their fiery arguments and leek eating are a clear highlight. That said, everyone has moments in the spotlight. You’ll have to go a long way to see a more enjoyable Shakespearean ensemble performance. The text flows. Every word is clear and understood. If the story suffers, it is only because, purists be damned, we are enjoying a pacey condensed version.
Everything looks good too with full costume and clever use of background images. Scene breaks are marked with dynamic modern MTV-style clips. If they crash the mood sometimes, they also keep the pace up. Occasional captions keep the plot on track and update us on Henry’s military campaign and the number of the slaughtered. This doesn’t mean there’s any ducking of the battle scenes. Oh no. Audiences are treated to hearty and committed sword swinging and fight choreography. Even attempting to stage such things on zoom, with a remote distant cast, is remarkable when you think about it. Take a bow, fight director Philip d’Orleans.
Credit for all this must go to adapter and director Caroline Devlin. She has based this online show on the company’s well-reviewed 2014 production. This is, however, far from the slightly lazy, unimaginative back-catalogue streaming that some, no doubt better funded, organisations have given us through lockdown. Guildford’s Henry V has been completely reconceived and redirected for zoom. As a result, it feels totally alive and in-the-moment despite being on screen.
So don’t believe the naysayers who tell you the theatre industry has been closed down by Covid 19. As Henry V’s famous prologue might have it, the muse of fire remains alive and well thanks to committed artists like the Guildford Shakespeare Company and the brightest heaven of their invention. They, and this hugely enjoyable production, deserve your support.
Orignal play by: William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by: Caroline Devlin
Sound design & composition by: Matt Eaton
Digital design direction by: Beth Mann
Produced by: Guildford Shakespeare Company
Henry V is playing until 25 April. Check website for full details and bookings.