Review: Propeller’s Henry V, Theatre Royal Brighton
Originally written for The Public Reviews.
Arguably the greatest play about war in the English language deserves a strong production, and few companies bring strength and vigour to the Shakespearean stage in quite the same way as Propeller, Edward Hall’s all-male theatre company. Updating this history to a recognisable yet unspecified period of conflict, their energetic incarnation punctuates speeches and battles with a capella renditions of the likes of The Clash. As King Henry V stakes his claim for France, the forces he gathers together are faced with a formidable French army; London Calling indeed.
As ever with Propeller’s reinvigorating creative approach to Shakespeare, the design is striking and Hall’s direction is correspondingly dynamic. Imposing metal scaffolds rise out of Michael Pavelka’s bare yet evocative set and dance around the stage as battle rages, becoming bridge, bunker and lookout. The sparse staging allows the audience, as the Chorus implore us, to ‘make imaginary forces’, but we are given more than a little help from the production’s flashing lights and blaring battle sounds as camouflage-clad figures scurry around the stage.
While the culmination of Propeller’s action, design, lighting and use of music is powerfully atmospheric, there remains a roughness around the edges. Some intriguing devices, such as striking blows at a punch-bag to represent physical attacks, seem only partly thought through and are at odds with previous action. Consistency of both tone and concept are lacking, leaving us with a collection of individual images rather than a unified portrait, although every brush stroke is vivid.
Henry V is renowned for containing some of the most famously patriotic speeches in the English language, but these are often lost among the cacophony of Propeller’s intensely forceful production. As Henry directs his soldiers ‘Once more unto the breach’ – what should rightly be one of the most rousing of the play’s calls to arms – Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s subdued delivery throws away many of the stirring words with which Shakespeare has endowed him.
Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry leans more towards ordinary man than king, convincing and moving when he unveils his human side but less persuasive as a great leader of men. In a role that is so heavily reliant on rhetorical flair, it is bizarre to hear this beautiful verse delivered so unobtrusively, particularly when there is no want of flamboyant verse speaking from other quarters. This directorial decision from Hall fascinatingly draws out Shakespeare’s debates about a king’s responsibilities, as we see a man grappling with a role that has been thrust upon him, but the play is inevitably diluted without convincing evidence of how Henry led his men to such an extraordinary military victory.
Other than the central role of King Henry, this is very much an ensemble piece, with Propeller’s ‘happy few’ doubling and sometimes even tripling up in various different roles. Hall’s direction transforms his small company into an army and teases out a host of solid performances, although some make their voices heard louder than others. Karl Davies impresses in a hysterical turn as Katherine that is juxtaposed with wrenching emotional depth as a young soldier, while Gunnar Cauthery convulses with bile as a wonderfully exaggerated Dauphin.
Appearing hot on the heels of another excellent history, their outstanding Richard III, comparisons naturally invite themselves, particularly when the final battle scene seems to emulate the unbridled blood and gore of this previous production. Lacking a little in unity, Henry V does not quite match up, but Hall has set the bar almost untouchably high. This may not be the best of Propeller’s offerings, but theirs remains one of the boldest and freshest approaches to Shakespeare that can be found on this country’s stages.
Image: Manuel Harlan