The ambitious York Shakespeare Project continues…
Hosting YISF, an international festival for Shakespeare, evidently wasn’t enough; York wants more. Thankfully, our demand for the Bard is being met. Over a period of twenty years, York’s Shakespeare Project has promised to deliver all of his plays to the city. Their Timon of Athens incorporated memorably innovative choreography. Now, with their current production of Henry V, they offer up even more surprises.
This twist both echoed the Elizabethan tradition of single gender performances and simultaneously targeted all those stages being dominated by men.
Directed by Maggie Smales the adaptation of Henry V at the Upstage Youth Theatre, Monkgate, was performed by a strong, exclusively female cast. This twist both echoed the Elizabethan tradition of single gender performances and simultaneously targeted all those stages being dominated by men. The set also liberated the play from its original context, transporting it to the Barnbow munitions factory and reinforcing this connection through the military uniforms and ensemble chant. In addition to this, some of the names of women killed in the December 1916 explosion were called out by the ensemble alongside the notable dead killed at Agincourt. Like the insightful casting, this outcry generated unique collision between the history embedded in the text and a more modern point of reference for the contemporary audience. That being said, at times the battle scenes were somewhat confusing, as the French prisoners were wearing the same uniform as the English while being executed. Perhaps this was intended to evoke the chaos of war but the lack of clarity reduced the impact of these scenes.
Although the chants were effective, at times other sound effects contributed to a loss of momentum. Loud and sometimes superfluous music induced a sense of bathos to otherwise vivid scenes. Additionally, in the scenes preceding the battle, more variation in speech and movement was necessary to fill the space, which felt a little too large for the more intimate moments of the play. By contrast the admirable use of French by Beth Sharrock and Lily Luty in the genteel setting of Princess Katharine’s bathroom provided an astute juxtaposition to the violence depicted in the slow motion scene. The element of gymnastics used here was visually interesting but would have been better complemented by a more varied use of lighting.
A production with very promising direction and innovative ideas
Claire Morley, Henry, projected the youthful vulnerability of the King beautifully with perfect diction and emotive facial expressions. Smales’s imaginative direction enhanced Morley’s portrayal with the depiction of the King’s coronation adding to the theatrical amalgamations of war. This alluded to World War I through the acceptance of a military coat. The removal of the coat at the end of the play effectively drew attention to the humanity of the King, distinguishing between the role to be played and the real man within. Morley’s change in tone when addressing different members of the ensemble drew out this burdened humanity and made for a very confident performance. That being said, at times a little more depth to the character could have been expected, especially during the ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech. This lacked the gravitas necessary to reach its fulfil its potential but was nonetheless energetic and engaging. Particularly strong members of the cast included Emily Thane, as the callous Fluellen, and Rosy Rowley as Pistol, whose portrayal injected a much needed dose of humour to break the monotonous solemnity. Similarly Charlotte Wood’s witty repartee as Montjoy was an auditory delight.
A production with very promising direction and innovative ideas, this is certainly worth watching, but it requires more polish, technical subtlety and creative variation to truly make it sparkle.