Preview: Henry V

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” cries the eponymous monarch in Act III of Shakespeare’s Henry V. So begins one of the most evocative speeches in Shakespearean canon, nay the entirety of English literature. It is a speech virtually synonymous with the great Laurence Olivier, who delivers it with memorable panache in the much-celebrated 1944 film adaptation. Yet is it appropriate to imbue this stirring call-to-arms with such composed, almost calculated heartiness? Or to swan about in a gleaming suit of armour during one of the bitterest conflicts of the last millennia? Is this not war, after all? Is this not a harrowing theatre of horrific death, with “all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle”?

Luke Rollason, director of a 5th Week pro- duction of Henry V taking place in Worcester College, certainly thinks so. His play is imbued
with a gritty immediacy, quite divorced from the refined elegance of most adaptations. 

“I really hate the Olivier version,” he tells me, “because it seems to me as if he is just reciting the script. I think it’s incredibly lazy to interpret lines in that way because every speech is essentially a character improvising on the spot. With ‘Once more unto the breach…’, Henry really has to find a way of inspiring his exhausted men.”

His is a promenade produc- tion, in which the audience literally follow characters as their narrative journey takes them from location to location within Worcester ’ s grounds. For Rollason, this atypical approach to staging Shakespeare is integral to his vision of an engagingly visceral production. Think Saving Private Ryan with Elizabethan verse.

Henry V is a play with real momentum, so it seemed right to perform it as a promenade. The audience will become part of the play, making up the cast of supporting characters, interacting with the actors, sharing soup with the soldiers. As far as I can tell, this has never been done in Oxford before.”

Every device is designed to heighten the script’s already palpable sense of urgency. I witness a rehearsal of the Siege of Harfleur in which rugby tackle bags, baseball bats and human battering rams are the English army’s updated armoury. Incoherent shouting, intense physicality and audible panting reign supreme. It’s tiring just to watch.

“I’m trying to find a way to break out of all those patterns that really tire and bore me as an audience member,” Rollason confesses. “The cardinal sin for any show, but especially for Shakespeare, is boring the audience. I want something interesting to be happening every two minutes. Everyone, including the audience, should be absolutely exhausted by the interval.”

Yet this is not just a tough PE lesson with a theatrical twist. In the deepening gloom of Worcester Gardens, James Colenutt, who plays Henry, rehearses the famous St Crispin’s Day speech. As torchlight illuminates his face from below and “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” huddle closer against the cold, his voice rings with vitality.

Here is an original and genuinely engaging rendition of a thoroughly over-played song. Yes, these are the grounds of an Oxford college, not a blood-stained battlefield in Northern France, and yes, this is a gaggle of weary students, not a medieval army; but, as the prologue urges, if you let “your imaginary forces work”, the “vasty fields of France” will be crammed into Worcester’s gardens, complete with the essential ugliness of conflict. If you open your mind to the production’s undoubted potential, Rollason et al. will do the rest.