Brighton Year-Round 2023
Henry V, like last year’s Hamlet, is divided, again like Caesar’s Gaul, into three parts. So invading France in the person of a trinity has classical precedent. The word-tossing chorus shared by the 18-strong company proclaim a fleet, sleeked-down version. The action stays where it is. No swivels to a new forest, but containing energy in a leafy-ringed O. This works admirably – pent-up testosterone, even development of steely diplomacy and central war panels all cry on containment.
A satisfying seasonal finale: a clear, engaging, visceral production with nothing vital lost. It’s as straight-down-the-martial line as outdoor productions of Henry V need to be.
Produced by Joanna Rosenfeld who co-directs with Richard Waring, Supported by and Costumes provided by Gladrags Community Costume Resource. Set pieces provided by IC Theatre Brighton and Duncan Henderson
Music arranged by Katarina Rosenfeld and performed by Kristoff Imre.
And this final week of The One Fell Swoop Project at St Nicholas Rest, is – Henry V.
It was always going to be a big finish. Photographs of cast shoreline excursions suggested the Channel, more beguilingly Pericles, itself mostly set by the sea. Another time.
After last week’s marvellous Romeo and Juliet we’re less centred on three outstanding character performances as three performances of one character. The eponymous Henry V, like last year’s Hamlet, is divided, again like Caesar’s Gaul, into three parts. So invading France in the person of a trinity has classical precedent.
For those who don’t know OFS: Scripts in hand, actors have from Thursday to Saturday to scan lines from a Shakespeare, do one rehearsal, then… unlocked. It’s like Read Not Dead at the Globe: but edgier. Here fresh invention’s not yet dry, sticks like greasepaint; Shakespeare’s still scribbling the last act in the wings.
Co-director and OFS actor Richard Waring joins Joanna Rosenfeld, who developed with Conor Baum – who originated OFS in lockdown zoom – the project of performing all Shakespeare’s plays over several seasons. Here’s the end of Season 4 and No. 18, and there’s just maybe another 22 to go if you include the late Double Falsehood (the ‘recovered’ Cardenio) and Edward III which Shakespeare wrote early on with Kyd.
There’s warpaint (applied to all!). Kristof Imre, resident musician under Katarina Rosenfeld’s musical direction provides a fine battery of war-drumming through an awning that accompanies well-blocked battles, engaging us with freeze-frames and sticks, like demented Morris-dancers. It only needs even more drumming and sonic mayhem.
The word-tossing chorus shared by the 18-strong company proclaim a fleet, sleeked-down version. Not just making brief work of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Julian McDowell, excellent in this and as chorus) but in blocking, the panoramic sweep around the far end of St Nicholas Rest, scolloping an audience horseshoe.
The action stays where it is. No swivels to a new forest, but containing energy in a leafy-ringed O. This works admirably – pent-up testosterone, even development of steely diplomacy and central war panels all cry on containment.
So we don’t have the vaulting intimacies of last week Little is intimate, not Harry in the night or so-called wooing at the end.
Rosenfeld’s is a refreshingly straight take; it pays dividends. No darkening Henry into a casual psychopath, or Adrian Lester’s Henry (as I was reminded by Richard Crane) in the wake of the Iraq War. More recently, in the long-withdrawing roar of Brexit – there’s been depictions of unwarranted aggression or cheap isolationism. It’s a three-piece-suite of clarion action.
So Sharon Drain, Sascha Cooper, Miles Mlambo take up the gauge flung down by Rosenfeld, as Henry. Drain’s the sinewy politic Henry. Her thorny crown (worn by each) nods preparations and rationales McDowell’s Archbishop obligingly lays before her.
The first tableau is executing three traitors (Alexia Broadbent, Robert Cohen, Sam Chittenden as Cambridge, Grey and Scroop respectively). After the Richard III-like swivel on the trio, they kneel, are lopped remotely. This memorable scene repeats in the mass prisoner-execution later.
Drain’s climactic speech is Harfleur where she brings a ringing iron. This is silvery politic Henry. Drain could have excelled in some later scenes too.
Cooper is clarion personified. She brings terrific voice, vocally rounded; like Drain speaks verse with a force of her own. She also delights in more humour, ideal for the night scenes before battle where she twits Sam Chittenden’s Michael Williams and (here) Alex Louise’s excellent, bullish Pistol.
Both Drain and Cooper bring great clarity to their role; the striding-out of Cooper, puckish edges recalling the ghost of Hal past, is infectious. I confess to wanting more Cooper.
Mlambo’s come a long way since the 2021 season, and his performance comes as a revelation. Not only is his rationale equal to his predecessors, but with weight and – like them – expressive variation – he presents a Henry able to think in the moment. His voice rings with martial strength and cut-through.
Mlambo brings presence too and a believable Henry both to war and wooing – without gimmick or shadow of sexual assault. There’s a gleam of humour, if not latent comedy of Cooper, but a palpably-moulded captain you believe in. He picks up Cooper’s gauntlet towards Chittenden’s truculent, but courageous Williams too with a nice pause, enjoying discomfort and outrage.
Chittenden as McMorris enjoys sparring moments with Zoe Bouras’s Fluellen who knows how to point and sharpen Shakespearean blank verse, as well as accent. Both here and in all her reports to Henry, Bouras stiffens the joints and sinews of this production. Not least in her trouncing of Pistol.
Louise’s Pistol is well-founded, truculent too but more sympathetic, even when thrashed with a leek by Bouras’ Fluellen. Indeed you never quite believe that Pistol’s much worse than luckless Alexia Broadbent’s numb sulk-laden Nym, and Bardolph (with Philippa Hammond refusing to take looting seriously).
Hammond is sterling as Westmorland and more uproariously as horse-obsessed Duke of Bourbon where she can again – as with Bardolph – throw out exuberance. In this she’s joined by Broadbent’s Duke of Burgundy in similar vein, allowing Broadbent more scope than the sober, sad Gloucester, Nym or Cambridge roles.
Against them Alissandra Henderson’s Boy, as well as French lady-in-waiting Alice and latterly French ensign Mountjoy, cuts an assured youthful figure with a gift for stillness. It’s good to see her again.
Good to see Robert Cohen enter OFS too. Though he takes small roles like traitor Gray, comically terrified French soldier taken by Pistol, soldier John Bates and Sir Thomas Erpingham and carves vignettes of all, he brings gravitas to the King of France.
Cohen, known (like Sam Chittenden and Duncan Henderson) as a dramatist around Shakespeare is skilled in blank-verse. His sober, equivocal, pragmatic France manages dignity in abjection.
Because OFS offers rotational opportunities, Duncan Henderson this week has less to do: a joust of a role as the Duc d’Orléans which he moulds well; more as the able Captain Jamy. It matters less this week, surprisingly, that we have less Henderson, but experienced voices are still at a premium.
Nevertheless we were in for a revelation. Wendy Hemmings-Quelch (replacing Seerche Devereux, sadly ill) came late to the cast but was strong as the fighting Duke of Bedford, the supplicating Governor of Harfleur, and finally a precious, preening Dauphin, rubbing Cohen’s King up the wrong way. A vigorous debut, someone who speaks the verse with power and cut-through.
Isabella Leung, last week’s magnificent Romeo, ably takes on the serpentine Bishop of Ely, pushing Henry willingly to war. As well as Fluellen’s actively-voiced second, Captain Gower, Monsieur le Fer the luckless French negotiator, and Lord Rambures.
Deidre Rose, who impressed as last week’s Paris, manages to scramble dignity as the French Ambassador and some pathos as Mistress Quickly in the pre-embarkation scene with the post-Falstaffian trio, reporting too the old knight’s death.
Ava Dodsworth, prancing as Duke of Brittany (those horses), and Lord Grandpré takes on that most difficult wooed scene in Shakespeare. Her Katherine floats wittily around Alissandra Henderson’s Alice; against Mlambo’s Henry she manages mute dignity.
The wooing isn’t as brusque as some. In her interactions with Cohen’s King, Dodsworth shows less fear. Chemistry with Mlambo suggests this Katherine knows she can draw out her tiny moment of deferral, size up being propositioned at least by a flourishing man wooing for himself; not a pewling nine-year-old.
Sophie Methuen Turner has less to do but ably dispatches politic Warwick, commending Henry’s maturity to Ely; the Constable of France in all their hauteur, and another fighting Earl, Salisbury.
Finally Moses Sedgley, still 15, goes from strength to sober power as ill-fated Duke of York, Henry’s brother, plain-speaking Alexander Court and rampant Duke of Exeter.
It’s a satisfying seasonal finale: a clear, engaging, visceral production with nothing vital lost. It’s as straight-down-the-martial line as outdoor productions of Henry V need to be. And though there’s 22 plays to go, we’re reminded by Rosenfeld OFS can only aspire to be here next year. Those who’ve kept faith over four seasons hope they will.