I had been looking forward to the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s production of Henry V and I wasn’t disappointed. They are one of the best small scale theatre companies doing Shakespeare in the country and we are lucky to be able to see them up in Scarborough, a long way from their home in Bristol. The round at the Stephen Joseph is a perfect space for them- a home from home which reflects their own Factory theatre- and the production energised the space beautifully. Even within a relatively small matinee audience I could feel the tension ramp up and the temperature drop as we watched the devastating final scenes. Put simply- it worked.
While more could have been done with the with the characters of the bunch of renegades who went to war with Henry all the cast worked hard and delivered well. There were three performances which were outstanding for me. Ben Hall gave us a Henry who was clearly still struggling for control of himself, his dissolute past never far away. This was not a king who had shrugged off his past and chosen the route of leadership and duty easily without looking back. He is no hero, his route to becoming a great king throughout the play is fraught and costs him dear. In a small space every expression, every small gesture, is seen in detail, there is nowhere to hide, and this was a performance with great truth. He is young and relatively inexperienced and I hope that someone from one of the national companies has taken note. When he had scenes with Heledd Gwynn, another relatively inexperienced actor, the play really caught fire. I absolutely loved her performance, both as the Dauphin and Katherine- I doubt I will see anyone I like better in that role. She was full of fire and energy, a true warrior who wore her pain and outrage as a badge of honour. It was a masterful idea to combine the two roles and transpose the scene where Katherine learns some English onto the battlefield over the body of Orleans. It made the later scene where Henry has to persuade her to marry him absolutely electrifying. There was pain, resentment and anger but at the same time she knew what she had to do. It was quite different to the way that scene is usually played and it was a revelation. I shall be looking out for her in anything she does in the future- I have a feeling there will be plenty.
It was a great pleasure to see an experienced actor alongside those two shining young people playing the Chorus and Burgundy. Joanne Howarth was excellent, drawing us in and speaking directly to us in exactly the way that the round loves. Every word was thought through, engaging and accurate. She knew exactly what she was doing and there is no better feeling for an audience than having a close connection in a small space with an actor who you know is not going to let you down. You don’t develop that kind of skill overnight and it was a pleasure to see. The chorus is one of the most important parts in the play. It provides an ironic and lyrical voice to comment on the action and drive the play forward and it really matters that it is done well.
I have already praised the direction and Elizabeth Freestone’s considerable experience showed throughout, both on a large scale, allowing pace and clarity, and in small details like the way that French and English armies were able to transform into each other instantly with subtle changes of attitude and costume. Lily Arnold’s set and costume design worked perfectly, mesh boxes and rubble for a set and weathered military jerkins that crossed the centuries, creating an archetypal world that could be anywhere, anytime. Exactly right for a play that will never lose it’s relevance while people still fight and those who are caught up in the carnage- not least the leaders- have to attempt to deal with the damage.