Review: Henry V. Royal and Derngate. Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

There’s nothing that quite sums up English theatre better than William Shakespeare, and there’s no denial it’s difficult to keep an audience captivated with a play that’s been performed for over 400 years. Watching this play brings nostalgia to those who poured over his writings for GCSE, not necessarily because they had studied this play, but because much of the performance is often like watching a GSCE drama project.

The story follows hot-headed Prince Henry taking over the throne of England from his departed father, vowing to conquer France after Prince Louis insults him, with a tennis ball no less. Along with a gang of four chaotic criminals, Harry quickly becomes corrupt with power, laughing maniacally at the deaths that he’s caused. Oliver Johnstone’s portrayal of Henry is quite overly theatrical throughout, but he does impress with his monologue at the start of Act 3. His fall to the ground and passionate recreation of the infamous speech could inspire any army to get back up and fight.

His attempt to marry the French king’s daughter, Princess Katherine, ignites a powerful performance by Joséphine Callies. Whilst the speech is majorly in French, a common grasp of the language isn’t needed to understand her desperation and intense emotion in her voice. Eleanor Henderson interacts beautifully as her mother, allowing both actresses to showcase their talent in a scene which will haunt audiences for years to come.

However, I could not review this play without noting the spectacular performance from Georgia Frost, most notably, of course, as Nym. Even when she doesn’t speak, she naturally claims the stage as her own, whether it be by her powerful singing or fighting spirit.

The large issue comes in with the very basic costume design. Many actors take on the role of a number of characters, but with little to no costume change, it quickly becomes confusing to keep up. This simple overlook corrupts the entire storyline and makes it incredibly difficult to follow. From discussions with other audience members, this was a huge gamechanger for many of them too, who spend their time trying to figure out who was who rather than enjoying the play. Paired with the Shakespearean English, which is already fairly hard to grasp, this confusion ruins an unforgiveable amount of the show.

The play starts with the characters sitting on chairs in front of a curtain, which may be a nice idea in theory, but seems far too simplistic considering my year 5 play had more background changes. After Act 2, when the drama starts to pick up, the curtain is swept away to reveal an artistically well-done castle, which proves to be a simplistic yet necessary addition to every scene that follows. Mostly because nothing else is done with the background for the rest of the time. The lighting is quite subtle, with a powerful sequence towards the end, and vivid colour to represent fire. Again, this is quite basic and for a play of so many themes, it could be elevated.

Easily, the most well-done piece of this performance is the fighting and intimacy choreography, pulled off masterfully by Kate Waters and Yarit Dor. They do a fantastic job displaying the relationships between characters, whether it be hatred or friendship. Whenever I find myself confused on the storyline, these scenes bring explanation enough, they ground the audience back into the narrative. The actors do an equally good task of performing it, and these interactions certainly complete the performance. Unfortunately, besides these few strong scenes, everything else gets lost in the poor production quality.

Overall I would say that this play is definitely better for people who are fans of or have a little bit of a grasp of Shakespeare’s work as the language is very authentic to his time period. I would also suggest reading up on the plot beforehand. While the actors have a great deal of potential, the play overshadows this with an unclear storyline. The end holds no satisfying or at least understandable conclusion, simply a janitor telling us “that’s the end of the show”, which ironically was one of the few bits that the audience enjoy.

Leave a Reply