Reviewed by Steve Orman
Like so many of the productions that feature at the Rose Theatre, Bankside, Groundlings Theatre Company’s Henry V was innovative and energetic, once again showcasing the fact that Shakespeare’s plays can be staged successfully with a cast of four… well, three, actually… hold on… with one man and a bunch of giant masks and puppets!
Let me explain: This heavily abridged version of Henry V, which had a run time of just 75 minutes and featured Elizabethan costume and beautiful music throughout performed on the electric piano by Pete Hill, essentially showcased the talented Richard Stride, who played the parts of the Chorus, Henry V, Pistol, Nym, and Nell the Hostess. Initially, you may feel, this kind of doubling offers the potential for a complete mess, but you’d be wrong in this instance. Even without a change of costume (besides removing his red hat), it was always apparent which character was speaking because of Stride’s impressive range of voices and mannerisms which enabled the audience to follow clearly what was happening in the narrative. Typically, this was achieved by maintaining a graceful erectness and verbal eloquence as Henry V, swaggering with drunken stupor as Pistol, swishing his hips and speaking in a higher intonation as Nell. Indeed, as noted by another reviewer, Stride’s Pistol –was- essentially Wilfrid Brambell’s old Albert Steptoe of Steptoe and Son fame, and this ensured that the audience often burst into fits of laughter. As the Chorus, Stride often sat down amongst the audience, speaking directly to some as if in conversation with them, directing their gazes towards the playing space. As Stride played the parts of Pistol and Nym, the fight between the pair emphasised just how farcical their squabbling really is, with Stride slinging punches into the empty air as Nym on the right hand side of the stage before stepping to the left side of the stage to unleash of flurry of fists as Pistol, connecting with nothing but oxygen molecules.
One of the most interesting features of the production was the use of puppets – giant papier-mâché heads complete with exaggerated features such as big noses and puffy lips – for a number of characters whom Henry V addressed. The large puppet heads were kept in two sizeable brown trunks and were all operated by either Helen Oakleigh or Oliver Gyani. Dressed in black, Oakleigh and Gyani often stood at arms-length distance behind the puppet heads, or crouched down to hide themselves from view whilst the puppet head balanced on the open trunk. This ensured that the puppets became the centre of attention rather than the bodies of Oakleigh or Gyani, and the fact that the puppets had moveable mouths – despite the expected dodgy lip-syncing – were a success. With such exaggerated stereotypes vocalised by Oakleigh and Gyani when providing voices for the puppets – such as Charles VI’s heavily Frenchified-English, or the sage but grave tones of the Archbishop of Canterbury – the puppets ensured that the audience remained enthralled by Henry’s plight as he aroused considerably more attention because of the simplistic human connection that was eradicated by papier-mâché heads. Indeed, Falstaff’s page was a tiny hand-puppet of a boy child (imagine Sooty or Sweep with legs), and Oakleigh’s squeaking voice and tears when the fat knight’s death was mentioned elicited laughter, not sadness, from the audience. Charles VI, who could easily have been one of Jim Henson’s Muppets mummified, possessed a bloated, football sized papier-mâché head, medium-length black woolly hair, and pencil moustache, and sat proudly on his purple-decked throne throughout. Gyani was able to move the head sideways to complete the comical puppetisation of the King of France. What I initially thought were scarecrows on the far back wall of the building, over-and-beyond the preserved remains of the original Rose theatre, were in fact puppets of Fluellen, Jamy, and Macmorris. However, it was impossible to see with clarity what they actually looked like, and the attempt to distinguish who was speaking in such moments by a small torch lighting up the puppet’s face, coupled to the fact that Gyani voiced all three roles, ensured that these particular scenes with the King’s army were not very successful on the whole.
It was also very unfortunate that Stride’s need for audience participation failed at the first attempt when an audience member flatly refused to call out ‘Messenger’ as instructed by Stride. I guess that this is always one of the perils of relying on an audience to cooperate and be ready to actively engage with the production. Having said that, I did feel that when Stride pulled three members of the audience onto the stage so that they could pretend to be the traitors Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, the moment was slightly clumsy and unnecessary. It was nice that the three audience members were happy and comfortable to stand on the playing space, but to be there for a short speech by Henry only to be told to sit down again, left me feeling that this moment could easily have been cut. Personally, I felt it was a bit clumsy, and what was the need of it? But it may be overly harsh of me to say so.
However, Stride was a great success as Henry V, easily dominating the stage in the rousing of his troops and confident wooing of Katherine, but also ensuring that the audience were stirred emotionally with his own overwhelming anguish and fear before the Battle of Agincourt. It was also incredibly moving watching Stride read out the list of the dead after battle; in fact, Stride’s Henry was incredibly human, breaking down in a flood of tears as reading out the names became too much for him. There were also plenty of comedic moments that ensured that the audience laughed plentifully, especially when Pistol was forced to eat Fluellen’s leek, grumbling, spitting, and choking, as he stumbled back to the playing space, eventually handing the leek to an audience member to finish off. Katherine’s (Oakleigh) attempt to learn English from Alice (Gyani) was also hilarious, as the masked pair frequently tittered to one another over the English words for body parts. Overall, it was an incredibly energetic and impressive performance from three actors who ensured that this abridged production encapsulated the very fiery spirit of Henry V.