Henry V at the Southwark Playhouse. 4th March.
**** Four Stars.
On the tables, in the bar of the red-bricked underground tunnel of wonderousness that is the Southwark Playhouse, lay an array of board games. The lighting was not apt for Scrabble, and not being in the mood for frustration!, Jenga was the pre-show game of choice. After engaging in a few terribly nail-biting rounds, I was suitably psyched up for the War as Game metaphor which was to be the all-encompassing concept for the next hour and a half of a magnificently choreographed, conceptually ingenious production of Henry V.
The audience were made implicit allies in (literal) war games- such as the Battle of Agincourt with skittles, and going “Once more unto the breach!”, fully armed with a netball tunic and dodge ball.
Shakespeare’s infamous history play gets a complete over-haul. The bloody battles and war-torn atrocities described through King Henry V journey to conquer France, are transformed into some of the funniest on stage moments you’d dare to imagine: it also makes you feel awkward as hell.
Removed of historical context, the absurdity of the aesthetics and the emphasis on textual comedy created a strange sensation of guilt alongside the laughter. You couldn’t help but feel that you shouldn’t be finding the representation of the atrocities of war so downright funny, but you just couldn’t help it. Applying an absurdist perspective made a mockery of Shakespeare’s speeches on the glories of war, to great multi-layered emotional and dramatic effect.
Movement director Leon Smith (borrowed from physical theatre company Tangled Feet) choreographed some truly astounding sequences, precisely timed to new-age music heavy with military drum tempos, and perfectly realised by the physical aptitude of the performers.
The ensemble cast multi-roled with great efficiency, swapping different coloured netball tunics (blue for the French, red for the English) printed with the names of the characters.
Simon Tierney (Exeter/ Bardolph/ Daupin/ Williams) was particularly adept, his vocal and physical qualities demonstrating an uncanny ability to adapt to the requirements of the character.
Anna McSweeney (Chorus/ Catherine) had a great deal to contend with, playing the part of a fluent French princess as well as orchestrating the war games, making announcements as a messenger by reading from the back of giant chance cards (the sort you find in monopoly) and dictating the narrative as events wore on. McSweeney performed with great dexterity, and is truly worthy of merit.
Emily Lim (Winner of The Southwark Playhouse’s annual Better Bankside Award) has created a rare situation in the theatrical world- her production actually achieved what it set out to do: “Starting from the unsettling concept of war as sport, we have built this world and this war as a game,” shoe-horning Shakespeare’s gruesome war narrative into a comedic context, asking the audience to contemplate the politics, motivations and personal circumstances that war involves from an entirely unexpected perspective.