Directed by Edward Hall
Designed by Michael Pavelka
His Majesty’s Theatre
Until February 25
I’ll keep this brief. This is the best Henry V I’m ever likely to see; Propeller give the story of the Hero King of Agincourt an adrenal, turbo-charged energy that would be nigh-on impossible to improve on. In return, nothing in Shakespeare or elsewhere is better suited to the company’s rambunctious, open style; I’d love to see them do Macbeth or, especially, Julius Caesar, but if I had to choose, this is the play for them.
The 165 minutes of the performance (the interval is only theoretical – more on that later) flew by on wings of iron, sinew and blood. Henry (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), transformed from his father’s plays, starts cold, elegant and dangerous – Daniel Craig with a king's license to kill – and then, the scent of warfare in his nostrils, blisters with martial ardour and humanity. Under Ben Omerod’s burnt metal lighting, and smeared with mud and blood, he looks like Leonidas in the van of the 300, with no need of chroma-key enhancement. His voice may not have the sonority of the big old declamatory Henrys, but he looks and sounds like he was born to throw himself headlong at an enemy, and that’s what his men, and we, react to. The last time we saw Bruce-Lockhart, in The Winter’s Tale, he was about to be devoured by a bear. This time around, I’d suggest Ursus arctos give him a very wide berth.
Bruce-Lockhart is surrounded by actors made for their parts. Chris Myles and Dominic Thorburn, Exeter and Westmoreland, look, sound and feel like men who command divisions, Nicholas Asbury, as Mountjoy the French Herald, a man who stands for his liege. As Fluellen, Tony Bell is as charismatic and shifty as was his Autolycus in the Winter's Tale.
Edward Hall brings the play up to date without artificially modernising it; the men sing London Calling and the Pogues’ Brown Eyes, they wear camos and night paint, but the setting is unspecific in time or place and the text surprisingly true to its original. If anything, Hall excises less of it than is customary, probably because he wants to give Henry room enough and time to be human, fallible, cruel, humorous and knife-sharp. The danger with this play is allowing it to sink into mere propaganda (parts would be a hit in Pyongyang), but by playing it long, and giving us 360 degrees of Henry, he avoids that pitfall. To pull it off, Hall relies on the skill and magnetism of his actors to hold us and keep us held, and they pour through the breach for him.
I felt that the all-male cast took some of the gloss off The Winter’s Tale, but that's not an issue here. The only female character of substance, Katherine of France, is in this boy’s own adventure for some gentle, coquettish relief from its headlong, bloody rush, and Karl Davies vamps her sweetly and hilariously.
Propeller raises funds for Lifeworks, an English charity assisting children and young adults with learning difficulties, and they do it in a unique way. During interval, when most actors would be adjusting their make-up or texting their agents, the cast entertained us royally in the foyer with a few tub-thumping pub songs – Sloop John B, The Wild Rover – while the money bucket went around. Absolutely effing fantastic.
I said we’d be lucky if Jonathan Holloway’s first festival delivered anything as good as Beautiful Burnout. Well here it is!