“May I with right and conscience make this claim”
After the phenomenal success of their pairing of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors which toured considerably this year, all-male Shakespeare company Propeller are riding on something of a high. The company has evolved once again with some departures, some new faces and several stalwarts remaining in situ to take on Henry V (which will be accompanied by The Winter’s Tale from next year) which will tour the UK and the world once again, even heading over to Australia and New Zealand in March.
A history play that has war at the very heart of it, Henry V perhaps lends itself more easily than most to updating, the enduring nature of conflict meaning that resonance is sadly never too far away. Propeller, with Michael Pavelka’s design, have adopted a modern feel – costumes point towards early-twentieth century – but one that generally feels more timeless rather than particularly anchored to any specific period with scaffolding units and crates forming a flexible set. The company bring their customary level of reinvigoration to the play, breathing a new physical life into the work and letting their imagination take it to new places.
That said, there’s a sense of disparate elements being brought together here that haven’t quite necessarily melded into an organic whole yet, this is the premiere of the production after all. This is particularly evident in the highly eclectic mixture of songs which is threaded throughout the production, although mainly in the first half. From the gorgeous arrangement of ‘Te Deum’, written by company member Nicholas Asbury, to raucous renditions of the Pogues and the Clash; the comedy of ‘Chanson D’Amour’ to the solemnity of ‘Requiem’, another in-house composition this time from Gunnar Cauthery. We are effectively transported from location to location, vaulted cathedrals to testosterone-filled war camps but it also lends a slightly schizophrenic feel, perhaps suitable for this production but lacking a sense of thematic unity.
Elsewhere, there are flickers of inventiveness that don’t feel quite fully realised, the stagecraft too clunkily evident. The way in which the fights are done and the gore portrayed came across as a bit fussy and not altogether necessary and especially so, compared to the powerful imagery that Ed Hall creates when relying on simplicity – torchlight is used devastatingly well at one point and using crates as shields provides another arresting visual. And it is the company that is always the main strength of the production: splitting the lines of the Chorus between them is a masterstroke, hooking the audience into the storytelling beautifully, and there’s a cohesive physicality on display – the preparatory military combat training has paid dividends there.
As the titular Henry, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart makes an intriguing leading man. Presumably through design, to remind of human vulnerability, his delivery is pitched rather oddly, too often using a voice with little heft to it that proved to be rather disarming. It might make him a more human character, reminding us of the man beneath the crown, but it also robs him of much of the charisma necessary to become the inspirational leader he needs to be, especially when there’s so much powerful verse-speaking going on around him. Looking back, it does actually emerge as a layered portrayal of a complex character, but in the moment, it felt a little as if something isn’t quite there yet.
Everyone else doubles, if not triples up, to great effect: Vince Leigh’s England football-shirt-wearing Pistol is excellent as is Robert Hands, Chris Myles’ stern-faced Alice, guarding the Princess’ honour hilariously, is a hoot and Gunnar Cauthery makes a strong impact as both an Archbishop and a highly physical Dauphin, forever doing press-ups and sit-ups. But Tony Bell and Karl Davies emerged as the most effective actors for me and in both the roles they inhabited. Bell makes a delightfully coarse but all too brief Mistress Quickly, finding some real emotion even in the midst of such bawdiness, and makes a superb Fluellen. And Propeller newcomer Karl Davies handles the comic business of Princess Katherine’s English lesson like an absolute pro, getting the second half off to a cracking start, but he also finds a touching inner strength and ultimately heart-breaking depth to his scared young soldier.
For those new to Propeller, Henry V provides a powerful introduction to their work, an outstandingly cohesive company looking at classic texts with an eye-catching verve and imagination but one still rooted in respect for the play. Personally, my post-Richard III expectations were probably a little too high and it did at times feel that this was a production conceived to replicate a similar effect and not quite managing to emulate it, the different elements of this show haven’t quite pulled together in the same way to provide a hugely satisfying whole, greater than the sum thereof. Still, this company remain one of the most consistently inventive at putting on Shakespeare’s works and there is much to enjoy here.