Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Henry V’ which is at Ludlow Castle until Friday June 28th.
Henry the Fifth is never going to be a complete comedy, but Here to There Productions have exhumed a fair bit of humour from the old text. I don’t recall ever having giggled so much at Shakespeare’s most patriotic play.
Comedy tinges the darkest moments. When Henry weigh us waging war, he and his Bishop make a mess of the paperwork; scrolls dropping dead to the floor. And the sight of the French generals shouting insults at the English slips into Monty Python territory.
But Carl Walker’s production does not fight shy of the tragedy of war. Actor Mark Topping almost has tears in his eyes as his character, the Duke of Exeter, accounts for his missing colleagues … and news of the death of Bardolph flattens the antics of his tavern pals like a ton of bricks.
Compared to the expansive regime of a few years ago, this return of Shakespeare to Ludlow Castle is a pocket production; but it still delivers its punches. Presented on a two-level wooden ‘D’ in the outer bailey, this is a much more intimate affair with the actors communicating eye to the eye with the audience. And it’s all the better for it.
David Hubbard’s King Henry is a handsome brute in an unpolished crown. He’s a bit like a public-school boy who’s just been ejected from ‘Love Island’. He’s passionate and, ultimately, compassionate. His presentation of the text is persuasive and he’s at his best when not being bombastic. There is a delicate irony in his gentle conversation with his troops as he describes the King to them from the safety of his disguise … and there is open honesty in the wooing of Bryony Tebbutt’s not-too-chaste Princess Katherine. Their union might be good for his country, but he genuinely loves his enemy.
His big speeches could be less restless. ‘Unto the breach’ is weakened by his wanderings. Kings should plant their feet and face the world. By contrast, his stillness in his soliloquy on the Eve of Battle is quietly powerful.
Several actors caught my eye. Tom Silverton’s decadent ‘Dauphin’ has the truculence of Captain Jack Sparrow. Indulging himself with wine and grapes, he is supercilious and bored when not the centre of attention. He’s a star turn, delivering Shakespeare with an easy beauty in two languages and upping the chuckle factor when comparing his horse to his mistress. This Dauphin has the air of a man who has plenty of both.
Morgan Rees-Davies is a hugely versatile actor who I’ve admired before. He brings the languid, slow-witted spirit of Roger Lloyd-Pack to Bardolph. Ashleigh Aston enlivens Act 1 with her blustering Nym; Tim Baker’s voice bounces around the castle walls with his domineering King of France, and Lewis Formby’s ‘Boy’ belies his young years with his superb delivery of Shakespeare’s subtleties and Kevin Dewsberry’s Captain Fluellen is a hugely sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of someone fighting someone else’s war
Humour pops up in all sorts of surprising places. Carl Walker works the “Welshman, Scotsman and Irishman” joke with aplomb. The Welsh leek is actually eaten, the Scotsman is even more incomprehensible when trying to talk and eat an apple at the same time (Shakespeare’s groundlings would have loved that!) and the Irishman, with a touch of wicked wit, is an expert in explosives.
The women are excellent in this male-dominated play. Jasmin Arden-Brown brings a touch of ‘Windsor’ to proceedings (Barbara, rather than ‘House of…’) and her repetitive body-parts vocabulary scene with the French Princess is a real hoot. Bryony Tebbutt actually sounds like she’s never spoken English before.
The story is neatly held together by a rather world-weary Andrew Whittle, as The Chorus, in a completely incongruous Marks and Spencer’s lounge suit…
his picture-painting amplified by an impressively moody soundscape. When he tells us to look at the horses, we hear them, clear as a bell.
With perfect timing at the dress rehearsal, the sombre close of the play was underlined by the ten o’clock chimes of St Laurence’s Church. If they can pull that trick off every night, it will add a touch of magic to a most inventive production.
www.ludlowfringe.co.uk for tickets – an open air performance