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Blak Yak's 'Henry V' - October 2018

Henry V, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Paul Treasure for Blak Yak Theatre
Shenton Park Community Centre, October 2018

Reviewed by Neale Paterson

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On the night that I saw Henry V, the role of the Chorus was played by the director, Paul Treasure, book in hand, filling in for a sick actor. I was surprised that it hadn’t been done that way all along: who better than the director, holding his well-thumbed rehearsal script, to step before the audience and apologise for the ‘limitations’ of a group of modern actors performing a classic piece in a tiny venue with almost no resources. It summed up perfectly the low-fi theatricality of the enterprise.

The script that he was holding was, for me, the play’s most important prop. Because this performance was all about the text, performed uncut, with all of Shakespeare's extraordinary and often infuriating circumlocutions and digressions and its disconcerting lurches between high drama and low comedy. Henry is a well-known play, simple enough in outline, but almost never performed in its entirety. To perform the play this way, in these circumstances, with a mostly inexperienced cast, may have been a folly, but by the end of three hours the ambition of the production worked a spell over me. I thought only Grads did these sort of shows... 

The performance starts slowly, in typical Shakespearean fashion - minor characters discoursing obscurely and at length before the real action starts. The actors did what they could to spice up the interminable ‘Salic Law’ scene, but in any performance where it isn’t radically pruned this is just a scene to be got through. The appearance of tennis balls kicked things into gear. "Anyone for war with France?"

Obviously, this play is a showpiece for the actor playing Henry - although it was interesting to see that, in an uncut version, the role is less dominant than it otherwise appears. This was definitely an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle. Declan Water’s Henry was a strong and sustained performance. While I wished at times for a more naturalistic diction - which he achieved well in the ‘night before the battle scene’, as a commoner - his delivery of the Hamlet-sized slabs of verse was always well-thought-out and well-modulated, never descending into gabble.

Of course it is the comic characters who really get things going. Alan Gill, Andre Victor, Fiona Johnson, Stacy Broomhead and Vee McGuire, as the Eastcheap Ratpack, delivered the true Shakespearean comic experience, in all its outrageousness and violence and weirdness. And James Hagan as Fluellen, later in the play - I cannot imagine this preposterous Welshman being better played. His ridiculous characterisation was perfectly conveyed. Even in the rather appalling leek-assault scene, where his comic monstrousness becomes simply monstrous, he managed to turn it around at the end and leave on a surprisingly gentle laugh. A lot of Fluellen’s lines tend to get cut in sensible productions, but performed in its entirety this absurd comic role is second only to Henry’s.

Shakespeare is strange.

Jess Lally, as Katharine, gave an absolutely bravura performance in her French scenes, with Fiona Forster’s Alice the perfect foil. The audience-involvement ‘body-parts’ scene was basically a short play in its own right. I have never seen it done with such comic verve.

Life is too short to mention individually the large cast playing an even larger number of roles - all those attendant lords and Frenchmen! - but I can say that they all demonstrated absolute commitment and dignity and intelligence and humour, and a proper understanding of the verse, even in the stretches of the play that seemed to - stretch. I was very taken with Solonje Burns’ intense stage presence, particularly as Williams.

The staging was simple, with the cast sitting on the small stage facing the audience and stepping down onto the floor level for the main action. I have not seen a performance of this scale in the Shenton Park Community Centre, but it was a perfectly adequate venue.

This Henry was big, messy, risky, uneven and overlong. I know that some in the audience found it a slog. But there were so many good things in it - such commitment to the text and to the performances - that I am prepared to applaud its vaulting ambition in a little room. It was one of those performances where, thinking back over it, you keep remembering all sorts of wonderful things that almost escaped you at the time, lost in the overwhelming wash of Shakespearean-ism. This play had Shakespeare coming out the wazoo...

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