Things started so well between us in January with The Rivals, but there were problems in February when the cast of The Hostage seemed intent on physically assaulting me, and now March has come along it looks like relations between the Southwark Playhouse and me are doomed to become frosty, after a Henry V that's so rubbish it actually made me angry.
I tried to go into this with an open mind despite the terrible reviews I'd heard, both official and from "real people." In fact so far the only positive I'd heard was that Tom Greaves' Henry has amazing biceps. Which is true, but even for someone as shallow as me that just isn't going to be enough. Director Emily Lim has aimed to find something "unsettling" in the idea of war as a game, but right from the start this is a problem as it means the production's founded on a mixed metaphor: The stage floor is a board game, with the Chorus throwing a die and reading from "chance" cards to guide events; but the actors play the metaphor as an indoor sport, all wearing shorts and trainers, jogging around and knocking over skittles to represent the battles. So is it a sport where ability and skill are a factor, or a game of chance? Like almost everything about the production, there doesn't seem to have been any thought put into why they're doing it, or whether it'll actually work. And deep down there's the seed of an interesting production in the idea of war treated as a boys' own game, but the problem is Lim never flips this to actually remind us that it is a war - with the exception of Bardolph's execution there's not even the slightest hint that people's lives are at stake, so instead of creating a satire about people in power playing at soldiers, all you get is a production that's... playing at soldiers.
You'd assume the sports metaphor would at least add a macho touch, but Chris Gylee's costumes have clearly been inspired by, er, netball. Seven actors play all the roles, wearing tabards with their character names on them (red for the English, blue for the French) and sometimes different hats. A couple of the actors try some very arch performances to try and differentiate between their roles, but most don't bother. Apparently if we know a character's name then that should be all we need to know about them. Staging it in the round is another mistake, as the large echoey room's acoustics mean it's hard to hear a word anyone says as soon as they turn their back to you. Greaves is at least audible at all times, although that's about all the personality he invests his Henry with, unless you count "a bit camp." Anna McSweeney's Chorus wanders around smirking at the audience, while occasionally throwing the die for no apparent reason. There's a bit of physical work that screams "Drama School" and some of the marching's done in slo-mo because go on, we haven't done that one yet.
I was bored but not actually pissed off, until the interval. Which is unnecessary and the three regular readers will know that's a bugbear of mine anyway, but that's not the reason, it just sort of encapsulates the production's "hur, wouldn't it be cool if we..." attitude. The publicity continues to crow that the story's "pared down to 90 minutes" but it actually lasts just over two hours. And yet at some point in rehearsals a decision was made to add that interval - did they really have any expectation of it lasting an hour and a half, or was it something they thought would look good in the blurb, with no particular aim at achieving it? Also, the first half ends with the actors frozen in place, and a hassled usher had to ask the whole audience to leave the auditorium. On our return the actors had taken up the same positions again, so essentially we were asked to leave so they didn't have to stay like that all interval. Did the idea of a blackout for the actors to get off, and another one for them to resume their positions, not occur to anyone as a simpler way all round to achieve much the same effect? Demanding the audience leave at the interval always seems risky to me as you then have to hope they actually come back. It was while skulking during the interval in the Playhouse's "atmospherically lit" (trans: not enough light to see your hand in front of your face) bar area was when I started to go over the production so far and get properly pissed off.
Evidently this Henry V doubles as a Shakespeare-in-schools production, and it's rather depressing that in the first half at least the production team seem to think the way to make Shakespeare appealing to young people is to eliminate as much actual Shakespeare from it as possible. At least after the interval the actors are allowed to try some verse speaking without five gimmicks per minute, but by then it's far too late for us to care. The text editing is really haphazard as well, as scenes turn up without the earlier buildup to them, so it's all a bit "oh, we're getting Fluellen and the leek-eating now are we? OK, if you say so."
Actually the most entertaining thing came before the show itself, from the clearly hassled box office assistant, who was the only FOH staff there so had to double as usher, as well as running back and forth in the interval to see if the actors were ready for the doors to be reopened yet. In yetanothergimmick, each audience member is given coloured cards to indicate whether they should sit in the "English" or "French" seats. In accordance with the actual imbalance of troops at Agincourt, the vast majority of the audience (me included) becomes French. (Needless to say, apart from being asked to stand when the "royal courts" enter, this conceit of involving the audience isn't actually explored in any way.) I heard the multitasking man tell one middle-aged woman that she and her friends were French - "But I don't want to be French!" He chuckled, but she went on like a toddler on the border of a tantrum, "I don't want to be French!" In his obviously Irish accent he came back at her with "Well I never want to be English but I always seem to be!"
I'm not recommending this one, could you tell? Henry V by William Shakespeare is booking until the 20th of March at Southwark Playhouse.