Review: Henry V @ Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park ***

‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’ And sisters, for that matter in Robert Hastie’s gender-blind Henry V. Playing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre on a stripped back set, this production should bring gender to the forefront. However, this is lost amid a number of other agendas at work.

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a time to celebrate this tradition and recreate it too. Gender in particular has proved a subject for reinvention this year, with all female casts for Shakespeare in the Park’s The Taming of the Shrew, and the Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse. Henry V sees Michelle Terry play the eponymous king in a role which should empower women. Its handling, however, comes across as an afterthought.

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Michelle Terry as Henry V. Source: Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

As the play opens, the actors assemble on stage to hear the Chorus. Putting aside Charlotte Cornwell’s less than rousing delivery, this opening initially shows promise: Cornwell walks around the stage, deciding on whom to bestow the role of king. What should be a triumphant crowning of Terry feels oddly anticlimactic. The fact that we know she’ll settle on Terry removes any tension from this scene. After passing over two male actors, she settles on Terry. And that’s what it feels like: settling. Less ‘Why not a woman?’, more ‘Well, why not?’ Similarly downplayed are other gender subversions. The Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman and Welshman are substituted by female actors. An outdated joke with a modern twist, which doesn’t play well.

Terry brings a welcome nervousness to Henry. Following the death of his father, Henry must now assume the throne and fight to claim France. An audience may wonder whether this trepidation also results from gender, a woman in a world of men. This question of gender again is very much downplayed hereafter, an afterthought. But this time, in a good way. By ‘Once more unto the breach’, it does not matter what gender Terry’s Henry is, so commanding is she in the role. When Ben Wiggins turns up in a dress as the controlled French Princess Katherine for Terry to woo, we completely accept this subversion of gender!

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The cast of Henry V. Source: Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Anna Fleischle keeps the set to a minimum, letting the story and space speak for themselves. Here, in amongst the trees of Regent’s Park, we see the moments away from the battlefield of Agincourt. Soldiers sit upon the banks lighting fires, so close that you too can feel the warmth. From the quiet eve of St Crispin’s Day, we are quickly brought back to the harsh reality of war. The stage lowers to create trenches which fill with water. Lighting rigs rise up, standing for enemy lights which are near blinding, the sound of guns and drums near deafening. The most impressive staging, though, requires neither light nor sound. Just poles, standing for those fallen. So little is the set used that when it is, Fleischle makes sure it is with purpose.

There’s a timelessness in Fleischles’s costumes also, a mix of modern and period dress, reminding us that this play is as relevant today as in Shakespeare’s time. An important message, but one which Hastie feels the need to hammer home at every opportunity. An offstage death is now brought onstage: men in balaclavas chase two young boys, shoot down the first then strangle the second in cold blood. It’s not easy to watch, given recent events. Similarly played up are international tensions. Press Night falls in the week of the EU referendum, a vote deciding whether Britain remains in the EU. Terry’s rousing call for ‘Harry, England, and Saint George’ feels very much a call to patriotism, while the peace at the end serves as a reminder of the importance of international relations. Again, this is played up too much by Hastie: with peace decreed between France and England at the end of the play, this is marked with a modern press conference, a camera flash, and laughter.

In trying to make the play relevant for today’s audiences, Hastie overworks a play which already speaks to us. Fleischle and Terry save this production, letting the text speak for itself.

Henry V is playing until 9th July at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. To book tickets and for more information, visit the theatre’s website.

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