The clatter of a Yorkshire munitions factory and the brazen songs of the ‘Barnbow Lasses’ fill the room at the York Upstage Youth Theatre where Maggie Smales’ all-female production of Henry V has just started its run. The singing hushes as a solemn messenger arrives for worker Claire Morley (King Henry) presumably delivering the news of her husband’s death in the form of his military jacket, and the shared grief of the Barnbow Lasses soon has Morley donning the jacket herself, as they transform into the cast of Henry V. The women of the factory become empowered to take war into their own hands through Shakespeare’s text and explore its depths, resulting in an immersive experience for the audience here in York.
The cast, who took on a variety of roles as well as distributing the chorus’ lines among them, worked effectively together and made full use of the detailed set. ‘Soldiers’ could always be seen on the rickety metal platforms or the crevices beneath but without the stage ever feeling too cluttered or overcrowded. The only way in and out of the theatre itself was by crossing the set, as the audience does through a crowded munitions factory at the opening and close of the play. Other than perhaps being a way to prevent anyone for walking out, the design and intimacy of the set was a fantastic addition to the performance! The strength of engagement from the whole cast distances the audience a bit from Morley’s Henry, and though her diction falters at times and some of her speeches are rushed Morley gives us a strong and passionate Henry.
There were many times the intertwining of the original play and the Barnbow Lasses story worked very well. Morley portrays an emotional, remorseful Henry, and when the Battle of Agincourt comes to an end we are left wondering for a moment if the bodies across the stage are those of Henry’s soldiers or those of the women killed in the historical explosion at the Barnbow munitions factory. The gasps of despair as the epilogue tells how Henry VI then “lost France and made his England bleed” heightens the sense of futility and loss in both wars of this production. But there were also times where the new context felt a little lost in the dialogue of the play. The scenes for Pistol, Bardolph and Nym (Rosy Rowley, Rachel Price and Shirley Williams), though all played by able and charismatic actresses, fell flat. A production such as this which generally highlights the bleaker sides of the plot and the elements of war and death might either give us something similar from its clowns – focusing on the notes of pathos in their scenes and darker lines – or give us comic relief, but in Smales’ production these scenes fell somewhere in the middle. The final scene, between Henry and Catherine (Lily Luty), felt similarly unsure of itself. It is a scene which can be unsettling in any production of Henry V, particularly when any modern context is added. The women of the Barnbow factory are exploring themselves, the meaning of war and death and briefly liberating themselves from factory life, but this was soured by the mixture of intimidation and mockery aimed at Princess Catherine that is unfortunately often unavoidable in the final scene of the play.
Henry V is a play that in performance so often becomes about masculinity, strength and triumph, yet Smales’ intimate production brings out its themes of vulnerability and loss. The cast and set create a unique and meaningful setting that will not disappoint. Henry V is on at the Upstage Youth Theatre in York until October 31st, you can purchase tickets here.