Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester
31 July 2019 – 25 August 2019; 2hr 40min
Flags, those strong signifiers of national identity, dominate this production of Shakespeare’s Henry V at Chester’s Open Air Theatre in the city’s Grosvenor Park.
The flag of St. George, floating above the entrances, waved as enormous banners and worn with pride on the sleeves of soldiers, challenges not just the French Tricolor – the ‘old enemy’ – but also the circle of twelve golden stars of the Flag of Europe, a clear nod to Brexit. Falstaff’s old gang, Pistol (Samuel Collings), Bardolph (Jessica Dives) and Nym (Mitesh Soni) are portrayed as ‘Engerrland’ chanting, populist-supporting low-life.
Joseph Millson’s Henry veers from ponderous monarch, debating with himself on the nature of leadership, to warrior king offering the citizens of Honfleur the chilling choice of surrender or annihilation.
Director Loveday Ingram sees Henry ‘as a glorious, charismatic leader, with brilliantly persuasive rhetoric and a warm heart, but he is also ruthless, cold and unyielding, hungry for power and the crown of France'.
The role of Welsh general Fluellen (Seren Vickers) is played with gusto and a touch of very funny, bawdy humour when ‘persuading’ Pistol to eat her leek: ‘If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek’. There is humour, too, in the scene with Katherine (Sarah-Jane Potts) learning English from her maid Alice (Mitesh Soni), and much appreciated by this first-night audience.
This pared-down production in a modern-day setting uses only 12 actors to play 22 roles. There is no set, sound effects or special lighting. This presents certain challenges, particularly of audibility. The battle scenes are recreated with smoking flares and much running around – and the famous ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech is delivered from the top of a ladder.
This Henry V is a play for our times, questioning the nature of leadership and national sovereignty, and the consequences of war.