Merely Theatre’s reformatted touring company moves at a punishing pace in this passionate and suggestive 90-minute staging of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The company’s new tour pairs Henry V with A Midsummer Night’s Dream as ‘twins’, five men and women pairings, learn a set of parts from each show.From the company of ten actors, five are selected each night to perform in novel combinations, and a truly gender blind casting.
With the cast list of Henry V extending up to fifty, compressing the show into five actors might be considered pushing it. Any staging of Henry V has to recognise the importance of symbolic representation in theatre. It’s an understanding that goes back to the original performances at the Globe, with the inability to fill the stage with horses or armies, the prologue asks the audience that you ‘piece out our imperfections with your thoughts’. Yet it was this element of imagination that Merely Theatre’s production so excellently highlighted through the casting whilst still delivering a faithful rendition of Shakespeare’s most warlike and patriotic text.
By stepping away from tradition, the company further justifies its decision to cast gender-blind. Stripping away the excess makes the show focus on simply telling the story. Making use of football shirts to distinguish the two sides of the conflict worked surprisingly well, fitting the clear us-versus-them themes of war with the French into a modern aesthetic. However, it’s a good thing they didn’t take it too far and stopped short of actually bringing footballs on to the stage.
Shakespeare’s lovable hooligans, Falstaff’s acquaintances, stood out as a favourite amongst the performers many personalities. Playing with bawdy laughs and making 400-year-old jokes sound fresh, the production leans into the silliness and it is at its best here.
Unfortunately, this does tradeoff insight for accessibility. The show is enormously engaging, but mainly because the characters rarely stop moving. While this creates an effective command of the stage, when they finally do stop the intensity suffers. Zena Carswell’s delivery of King Henry is partly guilty of this. Left alone on stage in the night before the battle, Henry meditates on what it is to be a king. But Carswell, playing a caricature more than a character, fails to deliver much meaning.
This is at the core of the play’s issues. A problem multiplied by multiroling, the characters are thin, the set is stripped back, everything is at its most pared down. The result is a lightweight, but fantastically fast moving play.
What the performance lacks in depth or insight, it more than made up for in energy. While it can be a challenge to make Shakespeare comprehensible, this production manages that through sheer force of delivery. Every beat of the play is hit with a clarity that only comes from hard work and strong understanding of the text.
Stripping back technical aspects, Merely Theatre stick to their name. An almost bare stage, framed by wooden boarding with an arch at the centre, sets the scene for everything from the English and French courts to the field of Agincourt. Lighting Designer Christopher Nairne adds clarity to the set with his work, broad lights aimed into the auditorium include the audience and illuminate moments of soldiers racing past.
Altogether this is a wonderful treatment of the work, not without its shortcomings, but with plenty of positives too. This is a company that deserves and demands to be watched.