first night

Henry V

Kate Wilkinson reviews Thrust Stage's all-female production of Henry V

Is that oestrogen I can smell? There seems to be something in the air in DST recently with a number of female-driven and/or gender-questioning productions such as Twelfth Night, Rent, Lysistrata, and of course Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most macho histories brought to life by Thrust Stage’s all-female cast. This aspect is the production’s main point of interest; we are given a truly formidable display of some of Durham’s best acting talent as well as a unique insight into the performativity involved in Shakespeare’s war meditations.

Having said this, the issue of gender becomes almost invisible as the committed cast quickly adjust the audience to the women-as-men conceit. Georgia Cassarino, Sian Green, and Cecily Money-Coutts delivered assured and mature performances, coping well with a number of grand titles such as Archbishop, Duke and Constable – roles traditionally performed by Brian Blessed look-alikes (broad, bearded, boom-y men.)  

The range of characters on display was amply catered for and most actors multi-roled. The sprightly Jenny Walser as Boy provided an interesting counterpoint to the adult characterisations. She was particularly endearing as the self-deprecating Chorus, and provided a successful and much-needed guide through the wordy play. Her light style and touches of humour contrasted nicely with the more grand rhetoric of Henry V as she entreated us to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”.

Georgie Franklin was captivating as the titular lead, making up for her short height with proud regal scorn. Franklin played an intense Henry and her famous rousing battle speeches were compelling. Nevertheless, I felt her performance would have benefited from a touch more variation and perhaps a little of the humour associated with the young Hal of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. At one point Henry explains that a king is as human as his underlings and although Franklin shows us his vulnerability, I sometimes found it difficult to feel for him due to the consistent intensity and sense of pride.

The production team have responded elegantly to the challenge of staging a play set in battlefields and palaces. The Assembly Rooms’ apron has been extended, bringing the action forward. The evocative backdrop of subtly stylised wooded slat battlements is pleasingly simple and doesn’t distract from the action. Producers Lewis Meade and Matilda Hunter’s attention to detail is revealed in the richness of the costumes and I was in awe of Money-Coutts’ fantastic leather jacket. One rather pedantic correction I would have made would be to get rid of the Chorus’ Converse All-star trainers. American shoes in a quintessentially British play- the horror!

Henry V is an incredibly varied play, constantly alternating between the comic and the tragic. I felt that Dann could perhaps have dealt with these transitions a little better as I was occasionally unsure of the feeling being expressed in a couple scenes. The ladle-bearing Welshman Fluellen (Sophie McQuillan) was hilarious in her own scenes but seemed a little off-kilter with the more serious moments. Sometimes, however, the interplay of comedy and tragedy worked better, such as the parting scene between Hostess Quickly (Ellie Guage) and Pistol (Idgie Beau). After a crazy full-on make-out session they somehow managed to reel it in and create a genuine poignancy to their parting as Pistol left Quickly for battle in France.

The pacing also provided a challenge and I felt that the first few scenes dragged. Dann responded to this well later in the play and picked up the pace nicely with the device of the Chorus. Although her monologues are usually very contained, a particularly successful moment was when the sounds of war (drumming and swords clashing) started during her narration and Henry’s army entered the stage as she finished her speech. This sense of urgency gradually ebbed throughout the play although I suppose that was rather the point.

Thrust Stage have dealt with the challenges of Henry V with real commitment and dedication. The cast worked exceptionally hard to bring the long wordy speeches to life and must be commended. It is also a play which requires a bit of thought from its audience and this production gives us a lot to chew on, not least the all-female cast aspect.



26 June 2014

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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