Henry V opens with a plea for the audience to work their “imaginary forces” when watching the play, given the stripped-back nature of the set (in this production, it’s scaffolding). With a running time of around 2 hours and 40 minutes, five acts and a limited set, the play becomes a case of perseverance, led by its company.
Granted, with any case of Shakespeare, the curious question is raised around how the bard’s work is translated. In this version at the Barn, directed by Hal Chambers, the undercurrent of Brexit and nationalism just about shines through. At certain points it’s obvious, with French and UK representatives sporting fake smiles and handshakes behind a screen with yellow stars on a blue background. Their press conference looked all too familiar.
At the Barn Theatre, Eastenders actor Aaron Sidwell plays the English king who decides to invade France, leading a string of valiant and confident performances. However, it is Adam Sopp as Pistol and Constable who deserves particular praise for his work to make the play accessible, through several specific gestures to convey meaning and emotion. It’s one of the few moments in the first act which capture the audience’s attention, the other being Demigroove’s juddering drum-and-bass soundtrack, which, together with overwhelming lighting, certainly adds intensity to the fight sequences.
Though aside from this, I struggled to keep connected to the production, and it’s case of whether it comes down to the particular staging of Henry V, or my lack of experience with this play from Shakespeare. After all, the playwright’s work isn’t for everyone, not least in the evening after a busy day. However, when comparing the first act against the second, the latter has a lot more audience participation and a slightly tighter narrative. Even if the fault does mainly lie with my understanding of the writing, there’s still parts of this play which felt difficult to process, such as the jarring decision to have an entire scene in French with only gestures to guide us.
The company tell us, on a small set, to use our imagination at times, but tragically, with this production of Henry V, I feel there is much room for improvement.
Henry V played at the Barn Theatre in May 2019 and is available to watch online via the theatre’s YouTube channel. The Barn Theatre is currently appealing for funds to protect the future of the venue, following its closure due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Donations can be made on the theatre’s website or by contacting the Box Office on 01285 648255.
Production Images: Eve Dunlop.