Henry V demands a great deal from its audience. The titanic closing chapter of Shakespeare’s historical saga is truly epic in scope, encompassing the lives of kings and soldiers, the high politics of the Hundred Years War, and not one, but two, earth-shattering battles. It is a blockbuster show, deserving of a blockbuster production.
Not a natural fit, then, for the pared-down stylings of the Passion in Practice troupe. Once again the pioneering ensemble – led by Ben Crystal, a vocal champion of original practices – commandeered the unassuming surroundings of 47/49 Tanner Street and performed costume-less and prop-less, relying on traditional Elizabethan stagecraft and the untrammelled power of Shakespeare’s verse to bring the play to life. If that were not enough, the cast spoke their lines in Original Pronunciation (OP) – the dialect closest to Shakespeare’s own English.
Crystal’s adherence to original practices also means the running time was cut to a fast and furious two hours, with Shakespeare’s metre – rather than directorial nous – dictating the tempo. Rendering Henry V convincingly with such scant tools is a big ask. The action of the play takes us from the English court in London, to a Southampton army encampment, all the way to the fields of Agincourt, with French, English, Welsh, and Scottish characters speeding the tale along. There is a lot to take in, and I found myself longing for the ensemble to curb their ideological fervour for original practice just a tad so I could savour the unfolding of King Henry’s destiny at a more restful pace.
Nonetheless there was much to admire in the production. The largely improvised interactions between characters – Crystal’s troupe barely rehearses before a performance – lent each scene an authenticity and immediacy rarely found in other productions. The absence of costumes, the typical visual indicators of a character’s rank and status, meant that the relative status of each had to be divined through their physicality and use of space, something so easily lost in more glamorous productions.
When Crystal took the stage, the audience knew he was Henry from the get-go, not by any crown or sceptre, but by his bearing, the angle of his chin, the deliberation of his gestures, and the space he maintained between himself and his subjects. His Henry was a character of distinctive majesty – the kind of king you would willingly go “once more unto the breach” for. Yet he also instilled the character with the unassuming humanity so necessary for the various scenes in which he interacts with his common soldiers. The seminal “upon the king” soliloquy, so easy to overplay, was masterfully restrained here – and Crystal dialed back the tempo somewhat to give the speech time to penetrate. Whether or not this broke adherence to original practices is academic – for me what mattered is the power he conveyed in these most stirring of words.
Every production has its standout performance – but this Henry V could boast two in Sean Garratt (as Chorus/Boy) and David Baynes (as Dauphin). Garratt charmed from the outset with a terrifically pitched opening monologue as Chorus, in which he comically stumbled over his lines and joked with the audience in the manner of a true Shakespearean fool. As Boy, I was taken aback by his uncanny ability to switch from a clown playing for belly-laughs to an unpretentious philosopher, wondering at the fragility of his own conscience under the influence of Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol – the play’s n’er-do-wells. His brutal murder at the hands of the Dauphin near the play’s end was enacted in a piece of sublime – if horrifying – physical theatre that stunned the audience into silence.
Baynes’ Dauphin, meanwhile, was a bombastic egomaniac dancing on the edge of control through every scene. In offering through his performance an inverted reflection of Crystal’s Henry, Baynes provided the audience with a lens through which they could better perceive both the political antagonism between France and England and the personal journey Henry – formerly the mischievous Hotspur of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 – had undergone to become king.
The use of original pronunciation allowed the actors to have some real fun with the myriad accents that feature in the play’s lighter scenes. Plenty of laughs were had at the expense of the Dauphin’s gangs’ sounding of “house” as “arse”, while Fluellen – the Welsh windbag played by David Crystal – also amused as he sparred with the scurrilous Pistol. However, the combination of OP and unfamiliar accents meant I often caught just one word in twenty. Clarity of understanding in these scenes comes second to enjoying the general gist of the various comic rivalries to be sure, but I still wish I could have heard more of what was actually being said.
The ensemble also embraced something new in this production by breaking into song during key scene transitions. Crystal afterwards said these tunes had been divined from the Shakespeare Songbook, and the hearty, militaristic ditties certainly sounded authentically Shakespearean. It was an interesting addition to the otherwise sparse production, helping to prompt the audiences’ imagination while keeping them firmly rooted in the sixteenth century.
Passion in Practice continue to impress with their explorations in OP, and these actors are undoubtedly some of the most accomplished Shakespeareans around right now. While I could not entirely shake the feeling that Henry V was not the most appropriate vehicle for their ambitions here, nor could I fault their efforts in bringing “the vasty fields of France” to life in a way few other companies would even contemplate, never mind attempt.