The Popup Globe’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s Henry V was an impressively sterling spectacle. Within the walls of the recreated theatre towering next door to the Sidney Myer Music bowl, we are treated to perhaps the lesser well known of the four plays that Kiwi founders Dr Miles Gregory and Tobias Grant are bringing to Melbourne in their touring 4 show season. Nevertheless, this version is a wonderfully stirring display of leadership, battle, blood and war. The commitment to ensemble colour blind repertory theatre by Artistic Director and director of this play, Dr Miles Gregory, cleverly allows season ticket audiences to see the King’s Company actors’ versatility and skills in different sized roles between this dramatic piece compared to their previous involvement within the comedic play As you Like It.
Once again Bob Capocci and her costume creation team have worked tirelessly to research and recreate the clothing for this historical period piece. However, the different aesthetics required by the storyline, the characters and the director meant a strong emphasis on battle armoury and weapons and in this Capocci and her team have outdone themselves with fastidious detailing and appropriate embellishments. The muddy war garb (boots, smocks and armour) made you feel that the soldiers had just walked off the battlefield. The darker tones of the dull red and blue Empire flags and kilted colourings juxtaposed well with the brightly coloured feathered hats and regal robes of the French aristocracy. The open faced helmets and clever metal joints of the suits of armour meant actors were not hindered in ease of movement / dialogue especially when so much physicality was required. A most impressive visual exhibition which is critical when there is the barest of sets.
This play immediately throws us into a tense political situation as King Henry V (Chris Huntly-Turner) has assumed the throne after his father’s death and laid claim to some ancient English land that is now part of France. Of course this royal role has been made famous by the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh and Australia’s own John Bell but Huntly-Turner’s own interpretation stands and delivers as mesmerizing, layered and powerful as those fine actors by the end. His discussions with his uncle and advisor Exeter (impressively played by Paul English) immediately showed both male actors as commanding and tactical as befit their regal stations. When insults from the young French prince, Dauphin (Stanley Andrew Jackson II) are relayed by his messenger Montjoy (again remarkable work by Stephen Butterworth) it leads to a declaration of war but not before a conspiracy plot by Henry V’s own men is unearthed. The trio of Cambridge (Jonathan Tynan-Moss), Scroop (Antonio Te Maioha) and Grey (John Bayne) were all convincing in their deceitful collusion and duly individualised in their approaches to their ordered treasonous deaths. Once again Michael Mahony suitably fulfilled the role as a go between narrator for the audience and the play, wandering in and out of the action as a chorus/cleaner. In taking us from place to place; England to France and back again, we seamlessly move through the five acts of this 2.5 hour play with ease and understanding.
Shakespeare loved introducing parallel stories that later connect, and this historical work is no exception as we meet common English scallywag folks Bardolph (Adrian Hooke), Pistol (Edward Newborn), and Nym (Stephen Papps) who prepare for war with a young boy in toe (George Kemp). There was a great energy amongst all four of these men and it lead into a gorgeously comical farewell complete with a frypan and chains from the tavern Hostess (amusingly played by Barry DeLore). Allowing the Bard’s humour to creep through at points like these, and later with the soldiers’ picnic provided some appreciated relief from the previous heavier strategic talk and action of the court.
A darker tone enters this comical group when some troops who’ve taken advantage of their situation by looting French villages are caught and tried. Henry clearly expounds such behaviour will not be tolerated and despite pleas to the contrary, he orders the hanging of Bardolph. Director of Music, Paul McLaney’s decision to underplay the speeches with increasing snare drum rolls and heavier drum bangs suitably heightened the tension until the final kicked chair action. The image of Bardolph swinging away with his bloodied white mask gave an excellent desired effect. The haunting song “Blood is the God” song really made its impact as the audience went into the break.
After the interval and a reprise of the rousing “Blood is the God” song, we move into the preparations and re-enactment of the famous Battle of Agincourt, at which the English were outnumbered by the French five to one but miraculously won. As the English soldiers prepare for battle, we see Henry in disguise talking with his foot soldiers who hilariously nibble on croissants and two minute noodles underneath a comical F**k The Frogs sign hanging from the balcony. There was a superbly layered and intimate monologue given by Huntly-Turner as he laments the responsibilities he feels as king. Indeed, Henry V has many moments for the flair and dramatics of war, but what also impressed was Gregory’s ability to work with his cast in fleshing out suitable moments of subtlety, the clever touches of audience interaction with Huntly-Turner’s long monologues or the simple interplay between various compatriots that used all levels on stage, through the audience, and up on the balcony. The next day Henry uses his brilliant skills as an orator to motivate his troops to success. Here again, the charisma, urgency and striding power of Huntly –Turner to address his men, and us the audience as collective English soldiers was impressively rousing and the cheers from the audience at the end made you feel you were in a scene reminiscent of Gibson’s Braveheart or Crowe’s Gladiator. As the skirmish unfolded, we were witness to a variety of meticulously planned vignettes with nearly all actors on stage as soldiers of both sides creating an ensemble of ever moving, always engaging piece of fancy footwork, physical interaction and imposing display of action and death. Full credit goes to Fight Director, Alexander James Holloway, Director of Movement, Brigid Costello and Director Gregory, in executing this scene so well with their cast. The additional touches like fire torches, smoke, ladder climbs, sword fighting, and blood spurting deaths were well realised for maximum effect. The musical drum sounds by McLaney are well matched by the dominant bagpipe playing by Oscar West that made the clash feel visceral and electric.
After this explosion of colour, blood and carnage, we are privy to Huntly-Turner’s impressive range and turn from hardened warrior, to grief stricken king as the change in pace and mood was beautifully realised by all that remained. The death of the young boy tugged at the heartstrings. Thankfully, Shakespeare changes the tempo by writing one of his most famous wooing scenes between Henry V and Catherine (George Kemp), the daughter of the King (a great contrasting role for Edward Newborn) as peace negotiations are finally worked out. Kemp shone in this role, delighting all with his mannerisms, and coquettish behaviour. His interplay with his maid Alice (is there anything that Stephen Butterworth cannot excel at!!) was simply hilarious. In the end, we learn that Henry will marry Catherine, with the plan that their son will be the king of France, uniting the two kingdoms.
Henry V is a slick, well thought out production of a difficult and very tricky warmongering play. The casting was spot on – Huntly-Turner suitably magnetic in the titular lead role, yet most importantly well supported by his splendid cast mates. The opportunities for audience involvement were less than in the comedies, but suitably so and still befitting the style and expectations of the Globe tradition. If authentic dramatic dazzle is what you are after then get along asap to this production.