This is an imposing, percussive, production, reminiscent of the kind of Shakespeare seen at the Old Vic in the 50s. Fine, upstanding actors – clearly spoken and colourfully costumed – performing in a bare, black-curtained box and letting the words do the work. It is a traditionally staged and stagey production, as much pageant as play, with just a dark throne and a pale, wooden cart to offer theatrical options.
The purpose back then…as it is in Shropshire Drama Company’s new presentation of ‘Henry V’… is to tell the story as precisely and correctly as possible; leaving the audience in no doubt about what’s going on. To that end, Peter Beechey has neatly streamlined the play – with a few cuts here and a little shuffling there – to make it crystal clear. And he has directed it like a game of chess – with every move meticulously pre-meditated.
He has also put together an exceptionally well-drilled, sure-footed, and highly competent cast – who do him proud.
Like all new kings, Henry V is aiming to match his father’s reputation. And so – it seems – is Alex Beechey, who rises above his previous pedigree in the title role. He shows well-measured signs of malevolence as he cruelly dispatches his traitors – handing all three of them a scroll to read of their forthcoming beheading … and waiting in silence whilst the news sinks in. It’s almost as if they’ve been sentenced to death by text.
He handles the big speeches with aplomb, helped by the ingenious use of canon fire to punctuate ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends”, and the unlocking of unexpected comedy in the “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech.
But he is at his best in the sensitive scenes; being deeply shocked by the scale of the French casualties at Agincourt, and almost school boyish in his attempts to win the hand of his future queen.
Whilst the English court is stiff-backed and formal (as if acutely aware of the risks of battle) the French are definitely having more fun. Ben Christie is excellent as the supremely confident King Charles VI (who acts as if he’s already counted the size of the two armies) and Ben Bertrand is beautifully naturalistic as The Dauphin, delivering his verse in a most casual, beguiling manner.
It’s a decidedly ensemble piece – and absolutely no one slips up. Amongst those who shine brightest, though, are the Welsh pair of Fluellen and Gower. Gordon Leach and Tim Baker employ all their experience to inject comedy into tragedy. They are Shakespeare’s harbingers of a Music Hall double act, poking fun at Henry’s Welsh roots and playing the fool with giant leeks. Mathew Deakin also stands out as Nym, one of Shakespeare’s classic, sat-upon, clowns – a kind of Baldrick with hair bunches.
Interestingly however – in one of The Bard’s most testosterone-fuelled plays – it’s a fair maiden who very nearly steals the show. Eleanor Gromadzki-Owen plays the French Princess Katherine like a bored school girl who throws herself into learning English just for something to do. With an excellent Michele Rowland-Jones as her lady-in-waiting (and speaking almost entirely in French) they squeak and squeal their way through their English vocabulary, making the utmost of mispronouncing ‘fingers’ and ‘nails’ and savouring the sound of ‘elbow’. And when Henry comes courting, Kate is rib-ticklingly defiant; naughtily rejecting his desire for a ‘dear conjunction’ for as long as possible.
Hopefully, some of this more alfresco acting will filter though the play; a little more passion would be welcome. But, after a diet of summer shows, where just a handful of bright young things play everybody, old pros across the county would reckon the SDC’s 20-strong cast are doing Shakespeare ‘good and proper’ – just as he should be done.
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