Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
‘Henry V’ by William Shakespeare. Adapted by Caroline Devlin
The Guildford Shakespeare Company
15th June – 29th July 2023
A brilliant adaptation —a vigorous, fast-paced history of the battle royal at Agincourt, in the gothic shadow of Guilford Cathedral. Theatre at its best.
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O, the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
[Henry V, The Prologue]
The stage that the Guildford Shakespeare Company have erected at Guildford Cathedral this summer certainly can bring to life this patriotic English play. With a cast of only five actors, who play 32 different parts between them, this is a brilliant adaptation: fast-paced, clear story-telling, spiced with humour and thought-provoking observations about leadership in war and peace.
Briefly, the plot concerns the newly-crowned King Henry V who as a young prince has earned a reputation as a tearway, but who now intends to take on his responsibilities as king. Insulted by the Dauphin of France because of his recent past behaviour he is enraged and decides to take action to regain control of land Britain owns in France, travels across to France with a small army and seizes the town of Harfleur. The huge French army engages with them and, despite all odds, at the famous battle of Agincourt the French capitulate and a peace treaty is negotiated.
As always, GSC have utilised the venue to enhance the production. The gothic style of Guildford Cathedral’s exterior becomes in turn the courts of England and France, a rowdy Southampton tavern, the beseiged town of Harfleur and, with imaginative light projections as the sun sets over Guildford, the bloody battlefield of Agincourt. (Unexpectedly, on the night we were there, the heatwave over Guildford broke and for a moment we in the audience feared a reinactment ot the stormy night of the battle of Agincourt, but it passed quickly over.)
True to the narrative thread in the play, we are urged to walk the few steps to each scene by the actors themselves. In Shakespeare’s wonderful lines we’re exhorted to visualise stormy seas, creaking rigging, cold fearful dawn and raging battlefield. These poetic interjections ‘breaking the fourth wall’ are one of the most engaging aspects of the play.
King Henry is played magnificently by Gavin Fowler, with dignity and passion as he sets out his leadership plans, with humility as he moves among the common soldiers incognito, with ferocity as he threatens Harfleur, and with charm as he woos Catherine, the French princess through whom he seals peace between France and England. He’s also hilarious as a drunken bawd in the tavern scene.
Sarah Gobran, playing a range of male characters including the King of France, is alternately regal and measured, fierce and vengeful, treacherous and loyal, always convincing. Matt Pinches succeeds in portraying the effete arrogance of the Dauphin, the oily pomposity of Bishop of Canterbury and making the audience howl with laughter as a drunken soldier of fortune in the tavern scene — his antics with Pistol, Bardolph and the other ruffians are absolutely priceless. Will Arundell’s performance as Pistol and other tough characters on both sides of the channel is taut and energetic, driving scenes of conflict with precision, ferocity and flair. Nikita Johal is effective as chronicler and councillor, and very funny when as Princess Catherine she tries to learn English under Matt Pinches’ guidance as Alice, her lady-in-waiting.
This review was first published online in Essential Surrey