Shute Theatre and Arts Guild's Henry V: review by Samantha Knights

PUBLISHED: 17:00 03 November 2017

Shute Theatre and Arts Guild performed Shakespeare's Henry V. Picture: Contributed

Shute Theatre and Arts Guild performed Shakespeare's Henry V. Picture: Contributed

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Shute Theatre and Arts Guild performed Shakespeare's Henry V at St Michael's Church, Shute, from Wednesday, October 25 to Saturday, October 28.

In the twilight of an apparent European abyss, the clamouring of the English Crown for French territory seems deeply ironic, writes Samantha Knights.

On another level, the backdrop of a hundred years war in these days of perpetual conflict does not.

These thoughts, however, were not in the mind of Elisabeth Miller, director of STAG’s latest theatrical triumph at St Michael’s Church, Shute when she chose the play.

I felt I should ask why Henry V. I studied the ‘history plays’ at school and university but Henry V was never on the syllabus. I regularly see the great bard’s plays, yet neither myself nor any acquaintance could recall seeing Henry V.

Ms Miller herself recalled a 1959 performance but not since. Intriguingly, the 10-man strong troupe from STAG’s last no less excellent production, Journey’s End set Ms Miller thinking about another suitable play for male performers and Henry V came to light.

It is very much to the credit of STAG that they have chosen what might be considered more challenging plays of late. I certainly cannot think of many remote hamlets in England where one can walk along country lanes and find a raw World War One play on one night and now a rarely performed Shakespeare piece.

One of the difficulties about staging the play is the extant texts.

The quarto version is strangely incomplete, the Folio version runs for nearly four hours. The latter was cut strategically and carefully to render a fast moving, dynamic script of an entirely acceptable two-and-a-half hours.

This without losing the force of the longer soliloquies and depth of language. It was thanks in part to the editing of Mike Beville. The audience unless (unlike me) they had assiduously studied the text beforehand would arguably not have been aware of the chops made. There were no jagged edges.

Just over ten men were happily joined by women with Henry V brilliantly played by Susan Gunn-Johnson.

She was a mesmerizing king – cutting a svelte figure as she held the stage with a magnificent delivery and flawless lines.

In the final courting scene with Princess Katherine, the gender issue provided a brilliantly light and playful edge to the scene as the two women interacted verbally and physically.

Players there were too many to refer to all by name. It suffices to say that the casting was skilful and each performance shone in its own right.

Victoria Pearce’s chorus was resplendent in red and with a resonant voice wove some of the background and context into the play.

Deborah Meakin was brilliant as Princess Katherine and the scene in French with Anna Crabbe’s Alice (her lady in waiting) was a hilarious interlude to the backdrop of more serious stuff.

This is not to forget Ms Miller’s male troupe who were equally strong with excellent performances from Simon Ford in the guise of the Bishop of Ely and the Dauphin; from Iain Purdon as Archbishop of Canterbury and Duke of York to mention but a few.

The set, design and lighting was beautifully simple with the Church bathed in warm evening light in the second half.

It was in fact a perfect setting for the play and with no need for anything more elaborate which might have detracted from the performers themselves.

The likes of STAG are all too rare. Those who did not come missed a real treat and those who came were entranced and engaged.

Vive le théâtre en campagne et tous ceux qui y participent.

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