The production of Shakespeare’s Henry V recently performed at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory was given shining 4-star reviews from The Guardian, The Times, What’s on Stage and many others, and it’s really not hard to see why. Lily Arnold, Matthew Graham, and Jane Curnow’s collaboration on set, lighting, and costumes brought the stage to life, with it’s minimalistic scenery of moveable metal cages, large microphones, and gravel on the floort. The stage took you back to the gritty conditions of a 1400s battlefield, but the contemporary dress reinforced the relevance of the play today: a power battle with Europe sounds all too familiar to modern audiences in 2018. Often, especially with Shakespearean plays, the luxurious setting and pomp can create an atmosphere which almost entirely distracts from the acting itself. However, this was thankfully not the case with this performance, with its aforementioned minimalism allowing for a clear focus upon the spoken word and the invaluable characterisation of both King Henry and Princess Katharine.
The microphones, used to highlight particular lines, passages, or to make announcements, really immersed the audience who felt as though they were being directly addressed when the characters spoke through them. This quality sound production was incredibly effective not only in engrossing us as spectators but also in heightening the dramatic scenes, particularly those at the end of the play with Henry and Katharine. The classic and well-loved text was executed with care and enthusiasm by the cast; in particular Ben Hall as King Henry and Heledd Gwynn as Katharine whose energy, presence, and chemistry on stage were incredible. Hall presented a nervous young king trying to do the best for his country with ease and great attention to detail, while Gwynn commanded the stage and portrayed Katharine both as a rebellious leader and a more sensitive victim of fate. It’s true that Hall’s excellency lived up to the immense heights of the 1989 film adaptation of the play, starring the magnificent Kenneth Branagh as Henry V, matching his emblematic charisma throughout the performance.
The rest of the ensemble did an impressive job multi-rolling the remaining characters and sometimes playing up to three different parts however, this did in places mean that some of the acting suffered as a result of the constant moving between roles. This became increasingly apparent when actors that were playing soldiers in both Henry and the French King’s armies accents trailed off and became a strange mix of English with an oh-so-slightly French twinge! On the whole, however, the cast and crew did an impressive job of transforming a long winded and overly cliched play into something that felt new, exciting, and was overall very entertaining.
– Emily Bond and Emma Hewetson