Shakespeare’s Henry V | Guildhall School Acting Course

February 2014 | Milton Court Studio Theatre

The disadvantages to seeing a show primarily aimed at showcasing new talent to agents and families is that often you get an overly confident or imposed performance from its actors. Everything is aimed to convincing that they can act rather than delivering the required role of character/ensemble sensitively. On the other hand these showcases are often far more interesting because there is an atmosphere that is exciting as they are taking the opportunity to be noticed, creating good energy and demonstrating what they have learnt intensively over the last few years. For these performers the stakes are already high; a good footing when presenting Shakespeare. Here both points are prevalent: implying a general success in solid Drama school training while not without faults in design and ensemble discipline.

The adaptation had no particular time or place (except twixt England and France of course) but very occasionally hinted towards the first world war, as in the trench-style battle scene illustrated alongside “once more unto the breach” (Act III), trench coats and all. This broadness helps to focus on the play itself supported by the standard blackish space of the studio discarding superfluous features and heightening the performers; an environment ideal for this type of event. Complete ‘context’ then, is not necessary. Likewise the scenes were well placed for the narrative that fulfills a fundamental and oft ignored rule regarding plot development: no scene was superfluous and each conversation was executed effectively to drive the action. Shakespeare’s skill, but also a directorial result in that respect.

The ‘company’ of actors inevitably multi-role, with varying degrees of success. Many individual parts proved themselves with aptitude (Dauphin, Canturbury and Fluellen to name a few) but not necessarily with all their roles. The three Henrys were each too different for consistency, causing the character to switch back and forth from fierce through to soppy without genuine character development. Firstly, Ceri-lyn Cissone holds her ground as a leader seeking the best advice, not willing to jump into war. But when she is openly mocked she struggles to unveil a proud and fierce retaliation against France, even with the great speech of Act I scene 2, [I shall] “mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down” which is delivered in a very restrained manner putting it at odds with the text and the intent. Ben Hall, taking over the closing Acts struggles with his conviction while announcing the death tallies and seems cheesy and unconvinced. This is redeemed at the final scene trying to persuade Katherine of France to marry him; for love as much as politics. The audience are presented with a soft and hopeful man trying his French and coming across like a soppy teenager yet still dignified during a delicate play of diplomacy, and we are on side now if not before.

This welcome change in the content of the play was matched by one other. Tanya Lattul and Kate Phillips present with ease the comic scene in French whereby Katherine drills herself in the English words for mundane subjects while Alice patiently teaches her albeit with strange pronunciations. Shakespeare’s sensitivity to narrative and inclusion of gentle moments is executed well here and it is a joy to watch.

Issues arrive with the design and the ‘ensemble’. Firstly, the bare set could have utilised the few objects to their full potential, so the use of tables as tables and chairs as chairs was uninventive. Then again with numerous scenes of meetings and conversations sitting down they were certainly used realistically. Beyond that the show was filled with strange set pieces and unreadable tableaux meshing objects and people to no benefit. For instance during the “battle” the tables were rigged and raised above the stage upside down illustrating nothing although one could reluctantly infer a literal metaphor- “the tables have turned!”. The Battle was an awkward mix of Stomp! with some generic chair waving in slow motion- it was the hardest element to watch. One nice moment could be found when the French leaders were symbolically reaching out to their lost subjects as the death toll climbed. Illustrated with the chairs as a threshold of death they help the (sitting down) dead to stand but they slowly slip away again, gone. However, this went on far too long and the moment was also gone. The music of the show didn’t contribute in any way and often impaired the scene it was trying to boost because they failed to make use of dramatic silence that’s greater than limited piano skills.

The rules of the space were broken in terms of the relationship of the ensemble. What started firmly as actors under performance conditions broke down during the interval. Happily lounging around making jokes and conversing undermines the established environment. Apart from setting the stage (which in itself can be quite interesting, occasionally) they didn’t need to be on set. Rather, they should have made a grand entrance that had successfully framed the piece at the outset. This casualness was embarrassing because it brought the occasion of ‘student theatre’ to attention while trying to show that they were an easy-going fun lot; what you might expect from ameteur youth groups. Keep it backstage and treat the audience like you would any other rather than as friends and relatives. It defies the purpose of showing professionalism to potential agents.

That said one cannot help feeling satisfied at the ending. For Henry the stakes were high, the gamble was costly but he is successful and we’re on his side. The training of text was very strong and they all clearly enjoyed performing it, which can make the difference for audiences of Shakespeare. The closing image of Henry and Katherine playing the piano together nicely brings the action to calm stillness before the end. One still may conclude that showcase productions are very much worth looking out for.

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