“Straining upon the start, the game’s afoot”
There’s something a little perverse about the most striking moment in Theatre Delicatessen’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V being one of no words, but in the anguished looks of two military medical staff waiting in the bunker as conflict rages noisily above them, there’s a flash of genuinely powerful theatre. The horrors of war are sadly timeless and that is something that Roland Smith’s modernisation, loosely redolent of the 1980s, is intent on demonstrating in this tale of a young King Henry wrestling with the burdens of leading men to war.
The company have adopted an old BBC building on Marylebone High Street as their new home, and after winding our way through its winding corridors, escorted by firm-handed soldiers, we arrive in a gloomy subterranean bunker with seating scattered around (choose wisely, it’s a long play…). And at times, the production works beautifully. The claustrophobia of the setting and the conflicting emotions of patriotism versus fear sometimes calls to mind the excellent Journey’s End; the scene in which the princess and her lady-in-waiting practise their English is excellently re-interpreted as a time-killing device which almost, but not quite, hides their nerves as conflict rages around them; and a deftness of touch which allows the company to effortlessly double and triple up, often from one scene to the next.
But the play’s the thing and Henry V suffers from a ponderous first half and a set of comic characters whose presence calls back to the preceding Henry IV plays and whose presence, in isolation, could be considered something of an indulgence. Smith deals with the latter quite admirably by not overplaying their parts at all, but the former remained something of a problem as the pace occasionally sagged, character lines not drawn quite as strongly as they could have and the verse speaking lacking a little poetry in the jack-booted rushing about.
Post-interval though, the constituent parts combine into a much more satisfying whole. Philip Desmeules’ Henry exudes a quiet strength as he builds in stature, Laura Martin-Simpson’s self-possessed Katherine sparkles in their key scene together and Zimmy Ryan is delicately understated as the tragic Boy. Liam Smith and Chris Polick do well as the French King and Dauphin respectively and Alexander Guiney demonstrates great understanding of the verse as the Chorus.
The production seeks to wrap things up a little too neatly in the final scene, the shift to a completely different post-conflict mood is belied by the ominous notes of the ensuing Epilogue, and indeed of the production as a whole, which reminds us that war is sadly, seemingly ever-present in our world. Still, this is an intriguing and often engaging interpretation of the play and sees a new incarnation of Theatre Delicatessen get off to an interesting start, with much promised to follow.