Someone told me recently that they were afraid of getting involved in student theatre because student critics were ‘so mean’. Leaving aside for a moment the ridiculous notion that anyone – other than the select groups of ‘those involved in reviewing plays’ and ‘those involved in plays being reviewed’ – actually cares about what one finds printed in the pages of Cherwell Stage, this remark seems suddenly very pertinent now that I have been given the task of reviewing a play which, unfortunately, I emphatically didn’t enjoy.
Director Frances Livesey has successfully marshalled an enormous cast, almost twenty strong, as well as trimmed what is a bloody long play into something approaching a more manageable shape. The inclusion of a snippet of Henry IV Part II as a ‘prologue before the prologue’ was I thought a decision which paid off, allowing us to see at least some of the transition in Hal from haughty scamp to unpredictable tyrant which makes seeing the Henry plays all together quite so moving. These are not mean feats, nor ones I am in any way trying to belittle, but unfortunately I spent much of the performance bothered by far smaller mistakes. Transitions were slow, sometimes achingly so; set and costume were uninspired; whole scenes passed by with almost a complete dearth of movement, depending on whether you count the old technique of ‘obviously forced pacing in order to imply that I am being intimidating’. These sorts of things tend to get better across a run as a cast relaxes, but they nevertheless prevented any sense of immersion I might have felt.
This is not to say that there weren’t sparks of promise however. Laurence Belcher’s Henry is a delight, soaring resonantly through more than one very famous speech (a highlight was beating apelike upon his chest to roar “I AM A KING”) and bounding across the stage with a petulant and thinly-veiled malice. And Chris Page is good fun as the Dauphin, sneeringly correcting Henry’s emissary on the pronunciation of his name (a nice touch) and lathering in knowing absurdity a speech in praise of his horse towards the end of the first half (prompting Orleans to reply “I have heard a sonnet begin so to one’s mistress”). Indeed the play is at its best when channelling the snide, pugnacious braggadocio which both actors purvey so well – the caveat here being that a whole play consisting of snarling and shouting can get rather boring. In particular Henry’s loathsome courtship of Catherine once battle has concluded (prompting the brilliant line “I love France so well that / I will not part with a village of it”) came off as more needlessly shouty than subtly or insidiously militaristic. Moments of successful comedy which might have provided light in between all this shade were few and far between, the forced consumption of a leek by Gerard Krasnopolski’s Pistol simply too little, too late in this respect.
Ultimately this was a production sometimes good but rarely inspired; resembling what a crew might throw together if told they had no choice but to put on Henry V, but sadly lacking in any stamp of a novel or wide-reaching creative vision.