There’s always an element of trepidation when approaching Shakespeare at the theatre. Should you find a production not to your liking you’ve got three hours to sit through, trying to keep your legs from falling asleep – an endurance rather than an enjoyment.
But Henry V is one of the Bard’s more spirited tales, even if it brings its own, hefty share of politicking and lengthy monologues. Indeed, Hank: Part Five – as it’s known in Hollywood – is one of the more quotable plays; you’ll know bits of it, even if you don’t know it.
Delivered well these stirring speeches can send a shiver down the spine. Jamie Parker (pictured above) nailed all the famous bits, but he also lent a playful quality to King Henry, who is basically in idiot in Henry IV.
This Harry is a leader of men, a slightly awkward romancer of women, a politician and a soldier, but Parker imbues him with humanity, doubt, warmth and humour. He almost gets close to breaking the fourth wall on couple of occasions. Crucially he also delivers the florid dialogue as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
That fact highlights how director Dominic Dromgoole chooses not to choose, in terms of going for a blood-and-thunder or a downbeat ‘war is Hell’ approach.
There is humour here – not just in the three rogues Bardulph, Pistol and Nym – but in the language barriers that frustrate Henry in wooing Princess Katherine. Parker also breaks the odd line to change the emphasis to a more comedic bent.
Of course, there’s also Shakespeare’s take on the old Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman joke – with the pompous stuffed-shirt of Fluellyn, played wonderfully by Brendan O’Hea – to contend with. It’s incredible how much of humour has survived intact over the centuries.
There is also battle and duplicity and the unabashed glory of war and death. Towards the end of the play the scenes between Henry and Katherine are tender and touching.
Throughout we are updated by a female Chorus – and the frequently plays out to a background of medieval instruments and song. And then, at the end of it all, there’s a choreographed dance routine as the English and French celebrate their union. Purists may have winced, but it was a peculiar delight.
The performances were superb. To a man, or a woman, or a boy. Many of the production double up – or play up to four parts and they do it brilliantly. Perhaps, alongside Parker and O’Hea we might highlight Chris Starkie in a number of roles here.
Nigel Cooke brings steel and the wisdom of an old soldier to Exeter, Sam Cox has a whale of a time as the buffoonish Pistol and David Hargreaves does well in a number of roles. But the cast has not a weak link among it.
Still, even over three hours – excluding an interval – this is long-haul stuff. With a one-note production that might have told, despite the talented cast. But Dromgoole has fashioned a surprising, nuanced production that is faithful yet accessible.
It’s the sort of production that newcomers to Shakespeare could enjoy wholeheartedly and should convince even Shakespeare cynics. Those three hours flew by.
Until Saturday 28 April
Images by Stephen Vaughan