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FringeReview UK 2022

Low Down

Musicians: Musical Director and Contrabassoon Lois Au, Bass Viol Joanna Levine, Cello Maddie Cutter, Nyckelharpa Benjun Pollock

Directed by Holly Race Roughan, Designed by Moi Tran, Associate Designer Mona Camille, Composer & Sound Designer Max Pappenheim, Dramaturg Cordelia Lynn, Associate Director Naeem Hayat. Fight Director Kate Waters

Costume Supervisor Hattie Barsby, Movement Director Malik Nashad Sharpe,  Globe Associate – Text Giles Block, Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald, Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Seasonal Voice Coach Katherine Heath, Intimacy Director Yarit Dor, Candle Consultant & Lighting Designer Azusa Ono. Casting Becky Paris.

Till February 4th


Flued and sanded, actors strain in the slips in a Globe Wanamaker Henry V where director Holly Race Roughan works with playwright Cordelia Lynn to produce a hypnotically fleet, lucid two-hour-twenty traffic involving overlapping dialogue where ‘Saint Crispin’s’ is sliced, added F words and deletions of the opening chorus, ‘a touch of Harry’ and necessarily characters: the trio of conspirators is rivetingly reduced to Scroop.

Wearing their own clothes (something particularly marking the 2018 Globe, not Wanamaker season), dead characters rise up and proclaim act and scene in a Brechtian swirl of activity, guying snatches of the national anthem in its most vicious, now deleted verse. Which begs new imperialisms of the emergent one invading Ireland in 1599.

Following this production’s chamber music it’s a superb rendering-down, and nearly all of it you won’t miss. Taking its cue from the recent Donmar we start with part of Henry IV/2 – but this time it’s not Falstaff but the premature-self-crowning of Harry V setting the psychotic ambivalence felt by father (Helena Lymbery) and son (Oliver Johnstone) in a dance of grief and recrimination. Equally though, that father reminding young Henry his survival depends on making foreign wars to confirm succession, obliterate Henry IV’s “crooked” coming by the crown.

Indeed Harry has an embarrassment of fathers in more senses than one. It’s the too too solid, not spiritual father this production highlights: a flawed lineage of snatch and psychopathy in a reading stripped of warmth. Where touches of consolation go hang, its saving peroration and heroism sheered. Not the classic version then. But, backlit as this is from the end, was it ever? Wasn’t this what Shakespeare was hinting, as much as he dared?

Harry is touched though, even if we didn’t need to lose that line. In Johnstone we find a trigger-personality who could easily raise the psychopath in Henry V. That he doesn’t but shows sudden despotic swings more akin to Richard III is a comment on how that ‘worst of gold’ crown eats humanity even more than flesh. This Harry springs violent traps after soft seemings and back again – with and without a tennis ball – and exhibits trauma, doubt, shuddering grief for what he does and fails to do. Johnstone’s lean danger commands fear, awe, wariness, sometimes love.

His is a Henry who knows his own and – crucially – others’ minds, but can’t own his feelings before they escape. A textbook BPD, he exhibits more wonder over Dharmesh Patel’s Scroop, whom he’s just strangled, than to Jon Furlong’s compact, growling Bardolph, left dangling at the interval. ‘Hang Bardolph’ he pronounces in an afterthought leaving the stage.

Yet in this repurposed Henry, Johnstone’s located in a politics the filaments of which are laid bare like fluorescent strands: the shaky premises for claiming the French crown balanced by everyone else’s, the fragility of the sick English army who merely wish retreat but will fight if blocked, Henry himself exhausted.

There’s rare inwardness in the way Johnstone starts his great speech as a soliloquy crouched on the stage floor against the upstage wall. It’s covered in Moi Tran’s design for the most part with mint-green (and pleasant-seeming) canvas matched often by plastic mint chairs, occasionally revealing a dazzling foxed mirror when removed (Azusa Ono’s lighting and candles first lit by actors), and haunted by Max Pappenheim’s plangent viol music, often a one-note dirge, as in the hanging of Bardolph – Lois Au, Joanna Levine, Maddie Cutter, Benjun Pollock are a particularly evocative quartet. It’s as if  Henry’s rehearsing his speech, and only later writhing figures emerge and enact his final peroration.

If we empathise with Henry’s PTSD throughout he battle, his grief at the deaths of his brothers, his high-jinks-glove-swap with Georgia Frost’s spirited soldier Michael Williams (and her appalled gutsy Nym), there’s more disturbing  confrontation with Joséphine Callies. At first the long-suffering Boy serving Falstaff’s former companions, her Katherine is a highlight of a profounder trauma than Henry‘s, abandoned by her politic, cornered father Geoffrey Lumb as King of France.

Johnstone makes a virtue of no virtue at all in his blatant sexual harassment, his barely-concealed rapacity.  Callies, flinching and bereft then plays against Eleanor Henderson’s Queen of France in naming of English parts, which Shakespeare locates early in Act II – as if she’s rehearsing for a predestined role as Henry’s wife. Here she goes about it right after her sacrifice, a bitter resignation and truer to history.

Her final scene ends the play – and it’s not Shakespeare’s. Patel as a lanyarded Immigration Officer and Callies riff off Lynn’s very different script. First we export a hostile environment, then we build a fortress of it. It’s the most comprehensive rewrite of all the altered Shakespeare Globe endings this year, by far the most successful – taking the spirit of the downbeat chorus ending the play and focusing on division.

There’s excellent support from James Cooney’s anxious, active Gower, and stalwart brother Thomas, Joshua Griffin’s politic brother John as well as a commanding Fluellen. Furlong’s Bardolph turns his basso voice to the war-grizzled Constable of France as well as critical soldier John Bates, playing off both Johnstone and Frost, who as Rambures jousts with Henderson’s Prince Louis and flirts with Cooney’s haughty Orleans.

Anglicising ‘Agincourt’ immediately in a casual linguistic imperialism, Henry’s violence rippling from Scroop through to Katherine pauses on the way to snap the neck of Henderson’s Le Fer. But it starts with Henderson’s and Lumb’s Ambassadors, and with icy threat to Lumb’s Governor of Harfleur, where Henry snaps into (again) Richard III switchback mode. Lumb barely experiences respite as Erpingham or the cornered King of France.

Lymbery’s Exeter after her Henry IV is one of the few not to receive violence save in the fluid balletic fight direction of Kate Waters. Patel’s Mountjoy is more browbeaten than commanded as gentle; and here gives a steely answer or two. As Pistol he’s able to ascend the depths of braggadocio; even if it’s vain it’s a welcome release that someone else can strut.

That is, except another Harry altogether. Lymbery announces a bracing coda, hoovering round the immigration centre, with of course Henry, sucking up the green of so many lands, which began here and is now in reverse mode. Bracing, fresh, wholly re-thought in every line, this Henry V emerges with gleaming power, menace and wit. And I defy anyone not to smile like the transfer Henry grin at this new take on Shakespeare’s downbeat ending.