OXFORD TIMES - Rosalind Miles
If you were ever to forget why the English and French have a natural enmity then William Shakespeare’s Henry V is perfect for a short, sharp reminder. The play takes us back to 1415 when the two nations were at war, culminating in the English trouncing the French during the Battle of Agincourt. It is a fiercely patriotic piece. The French – and in particularly Lewis the Dauphin – are silly arrogant twerps in awe of the English and their “mettle”, while mocking them for eating so much beef and “killing fruit with their frowns”. In contrast to the French lords and their fine wines, the English king and soldiers are shown as humble, brave warriors who overcome their enemy against all odds.
The Oxford Theatre Guild are staging a production of this historic epic in the grounds of Trinity College. On the first night of their run, rain sent the audience – including this reviewer – home, but thankfully second time round the sun shone, making it a beautiful setting for the re-enactment of England’s glorious victory.
Alistair Nunn has the necessary power and gravitas to play the courageous and noble King Henry V. His stage presence and commanding voice make him compelling to watch.
James Silk is comic and entertaining as the foolish fop Lewis the Dauphin, who was actually responsible for triggering the war by sending Henry V tennis balls as a present. At one point he had the second-night audience in fits of giggles with his delivery of the line “my horse is my mistress” while prancing about.
The Guild emphasises the wealth and sophistication of the French court by dressing the French characters in stylish and expensive-looking clothes. The English characters, on the other hand, are seen in battle clothes or in brown, rag-like attire. Of course, since this is a Shakespeare play, there is plenty of bawdy action, disputes and silliness, provided mainly by Pistol. Tim Younger gives a lively performance as this miscreant, who gets his comeuppance when he is forced to eat leeks by the Welsh soldier Fluellen (Adam Potterton).
There is a scene which those with a wish to practise their French would enjoy. Katherine, Princess of France (Charlotte Evans) is dressing and chatting to her maid in French. She tries to learn English and so pronounces English words with a comic French accent. As tension before the battle builds, atmosphere is created by a soundtrack of horses and men marching. A band also plays music evocative of the period at appropriate intervals.
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DAILY INFORMATION - Daniel Fox
The Oxford Theatre Guild's production of Henry V has great costumes, a simple but effective set, live music and an enthusiastic performance encompassing a range of success. The plot is more or less how I remember history being delivered by the typical sports coach/history teacher in America: This guy wanted what was wrongfully his so he went over here and kicked butt because he had overwhelming forces on his side; this guy wanted what was rightfully his so he went over there and kicked butt despite the overwhelming forces of his opponent. King Henry is a figure from the latter category. When the French unreasonably refuse to cede him territory he considers rightfully his,
he goes to conquer their whole country with but a small portion of his army (you can never be too careful with those Scotsmen).
King Henry (Alistair Nunn) seemed to warm up as the daylight faded and the dramatic intensity of the play grew. In the second half I enjoyed his rousing and witty speeches. By the end of the play (7.30-10.45pm including a 20 minute interval) he was speaking the lines as if they were coming not just from his mouth, but also from his mind.
Many of the performances could benefit from a greater conviction in the power of the words they speak (projection often being an issue wuth outdoor shows). There was an occasional stumble of a line here or there, some of which were distracting and some of which were deftly incorporated into character. A few characters incorporated accents which, to my ears, sounded absurd and buried the lines (if only there were a breathalyzer test for accents as well as inebriation - above 0.08% and you can't drive it on stage!).
Although a few performances suffered from overenthusiasm, the delivery of Pistol (Tim Younger)raced across the border bounding the lands of reasonable embellishment. He often seemed to channel a hyper version of Ali G, with accompanying gangster hand gestures and air drawings of every noun uttered. I feel certain that a hefty trimming of the sails could result in a very enjoyable performance by Mr. Younger. By contrast, in the first scene that Pistol appears, we also meet the drunken old soldier, Bardolph (Brian Drowley), who comes and goes from the stage with subtle humour and authenticity. I pray for his health and sobriety that he was in fact acting. I also enjoyed the well-tempered comedy of the constable of France (Phillip Cotterill), who knew how to use his countenance as well as his tongue to deliver the lines.
The performance could stand to have more animation of the text in the opening scenes when the plot is launched, as it was in the setup that I particularly felt the cast acting their hardest to appear interested in what they were saying. The added garnish of humour seems to be a wink at the audience to let us know that the company also realizes this is boring stuff. This could be a missed opportunity. The plot isn't so complicated and the exposition not so convoluted or lengthy that a little bit more interest from the actors themselves - and possibly more movement on stage or gestural illumination - could lead to a stronger opening to the action of the play. Overall though, it is wonderful how much comedy greases the wheels of this history.
DAILY INFORMATION - Glenn Watson
In Shakespeare’s day the rowdy audience would’ve lobbed fruit and gobbed spittle. In Oxford Theatre Guild’s back-to-basics production of Henry V, that’s exactly what happens, as actor-audience members jeer and chuck stuff as the Chorus commences. And one of the chorus-foursome sweeps the stage, abjuring the audience not to gob.
It’s a jump-start opener that bounces the audience back to Shakespeare’s day. It’s the first sign – the second if you count the bare wooden stage – that we’re back to The Globe. And when the players step forward in beautifully-rendered costumes, Joanna Matthew’s directorial tone is complete. It’s a refreshingly brave approach: Joanna’s programme notes are bang on the money: ‘a simple narrative that doesn’t need to hold a mirror up to the way we live now’.
So, revel in the period atmosphere. An early music ensemble adds the authentic colour of a wind consort, with albeit wavering quavers now and then. And while the Chorus takes a while to find its rhythm, and some other players too, Alistair Nunn’s impressively majestic Henry hushes the audience as soon as he enters. Appropriate, that. For Henry is a monarch from whom no one – least of all the foolish French dauphin – expects much. But Nunn’s portrayal tellingly conveys the strength of mind and depth of character of a king.
Trinity’s garden setting is a tricky space. Quiet speaking from some cast members suffers to be heard against the hush of the trees - a backdrop and a backstage - let alone the swoosh of nearby traffic. But belting oration from Nunn’s King Henry grabs the ear and his deft delivery is blended with stately silences that draw your attention.
The comedic elements of Nym, Pistol and Bardolph – carryovers from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 – are colourful. But the static setting of their entrance-scene saps it for anyone not already familiar with who they are. Flamboyant playing and lustily swung swords signify the bluster of a band of brothers – but more movement and use of the stage would have helped.
"O for a muse of fire," shouts the Chorus. And a sunny, resplendent eve will certainly help. But you won’t experience the rain-soaked reality of Agincourt’s action. If the rain comes down, they’ll wait a bit, but the Theatre Guild’s costumes can’t withstand a wetting and the curtain will fall. But with fair weather, fair stands the wind for France.
Oxford Theatre Guild have pulled out the stops in an impressively scaled period-production – thirty cast members, cracking costumes and live music. A first night downpour stopped the show before Harfleur had happened. But all signs point to a solid production, capably led by a captivating King.
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WHAT'S ON STAGE - Meriel Patrick
Trinity College Gardens is a picturesque setting for Oxford Theatre Guild’s annual summer Shakespeare. This year they take us to the ‘vasty fields of France’ for the classic tale of war and politics, noble bravery and scurrilous low-life that is Henry V.
Modern theatre-goers are used to seeing Shakespeare done with eight or so actors and a lot of creative doubling, and it is therefore a pleasant change to see this well-established amateur group take full advantage of a luxury not available to most professional productions, with a cast of around thirty (although even this still leaves a number of them playing multiple roles). At the centre of this large and enthusiastic company, Alistair Nunn gives a committed and consistent performance as Henry himself. In a piece which depends so heavily on ensemble playing, however, it seems unfair to single out other individuals.
Henry V is well known for being a play without much scope for female actors, and director Joanna Matthews makes a valiant attempt to redress the balance with a handful of cross-cast roles and a four woman chorus. In places, this works well; in others it is unfortunately less successful.
Due credit must go to the backstage team: the sumptuous costumes are worthy of a major professional production, and the complex, multi-levelled set was somewhat reminiscent of that used in the RSC’s recent history plays cycle, with careful use of doors and trapdoors providing opportunities for moments both dramatic and poignant.
For what is perhaps one of the world’s most famous pieces of theatre about a military engagement, the play has surprisingly few action sequences: it is chiefly a succession of court scenes and army camp conversations. While this is a feature of the play rather than a fault in the production, it was hard not to feel that some judicious trimming and a somewhat brisker pace would have helped the evening move along: three and a quarter hours is a long time to sit in a garden on a rapidly cooling English summer evening. It did at least remain dry – although this meant we were deprived of the opportunity to witness the spectacle promised by the front of house manager: that the actors would carry on performing if it rained… but only once they had removed their costumes!
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Oxford Prospect - Julia Gasper
OXFORD THEATRE GUILD is a cherished institution that is an essential part of the summer scene. Their productions of Shakespeare, performed by talented amateurs, have got a lot to teach the so-called professionals, and their Henry V was a lot better than the two recent professional productions I have seen.
The role of the redoubtable Henry, playboy-turned-soldier-and national-hero was taken with gusto by Alistair Nunn, who brought power and energy to the part. He certainly looked like a military man in his bearing and delivered the great speeches to his troops, at Agincourt and Harfleur, with authority. I would make only one tiny point, which is that by getting a bit too worked up in his prayer speech the night before the great battle, he did detract a bit from the effect of the St. Crispin’s Day oration that follows.
The extremely difficult role of Pistol was taken by Tim Younger, the best Pistol I have ever seen, absurd, pompous, cowardly and finally pathetic. Brian Drowley managed to double the roles of Sir Thomas Erpingham and Bardolph, the rogue who gets hanged for stealing. He was terrific, though he might just have made a little more of his memorable line, “Base is the slave that pays…” An even greater tour-de-force was accomplished by Adam Potterton, who doubled the roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the brave Welsh soldier, Fluellen.
Among the many excellent performances, we must mention that of James Silk as the Dauphin, and how very splendidly French he looked. Of course he has to be a loser in this play, though the chorus does admit at the end that the English victories were rather short-lived. Kevin Elliot made a brief appearance as the Governor of Harfleur, shrouded in a cowl. Charlotte Evans was a delightful young Princess of France. The chorus was performed in a variety of ways by a group of four women, who used mime and gesture to stimulate our imaginations, and the final chorus, in which the death of Henry V and the succession of his baby son were also mimed, (or acted in dumb-show to use the Elizabethan term) had great impact.
How refreshing it is to see Shakespeare done straight, with no gimmicks, a cast wearing proper costumes, and some very suitable music, composed specially for this production by Lorri Atkins and performed by an Elizabethan wind consort. This was not a slavishly “period” production, as the 20th-cent wartime songs, for example, seemed absolutely appropriate, but it was Shakespeare done the way people expect – and hope – it will be done. What a welcome change.
This is a perplexing play, and it gives in many respects a far from heroic or idealized picture of war. The emphasis on the goriness and wasted lives, the grave moral responsibility of the leaders, the plunder, rape and disease that an army inflicted as it crossed a country, and even the dubious politics that that led up to the war, all counter-balances a simple picture of a national hero and a glorious victory. It’s curious how Shakespeare always seems to be bang up to date. You put on the old, familiar stuff again and find yourself reflecting on how similar its themes are to what’s in the news today. In the opening scenes, the two bishops discuss how they want a war to prevent the king from imposing a severe tax on the church, and they then proceed to find him all the pretexts he wants for an immediate invasion of France – was this the dodgy dossier of the fifteenth century?
We hope to see many future productions from Oxford Theatre Guild of the same high standard. Long may it flourish!
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