Review: Henry the Fifth, Unicorn Theatre

“This is a story about a king”

The Unicorn’s A Winter’s Tale, written by Ignace Cornelissen from Shakespeare, was something unexpectedly brilliant last year, and powerfully moving – unsure of what to expect, I didn’t think that I’d be crying for a good while after at what was ostensibly a children’s show. So you’d think I’d be pre-warned going into Henry the Fifth, likewise an adaptation of, or more accurately a response to, Henry V, but once again, I found myself weeping, most likely scaring the children around me and even now, I’m unable to look at a balloon without welling up.

Cornelissen, translated by Purni Morell, re-envisages the war at the heart of the play as a playground struggle and in Ellen MacDougall’s lucid production, we see that the actions of those concerned are as impactful whether on a school field or a battlefield. The power games of climbing to the top and grabbing it all apply equally in both scenarios but more tellingly, the effect that they have on the people around them can be absolutely devastating. It is such a simple technique but one which is spellbindingly effective.

So a balloon and castle-filled sandpit represents France and Shane Zaza’s wide-eyed Henry sets his heart on grabbing it for himself, even as Distant Cousin Nigel (Rhys Rusbatch) wants the same thing, including the hand of Princess Katherine in marriage. But Hannah Boyde’s princess casts off her Shakespearean mantle to emerge as a feisty heroine determined to rule by herself, and so the interactions take the form of a playful game of make-believe, but one which soon snowballs out of control, leaving the boys wondering if it was all worth it.

MacDougall utilises a huge amount of theatrical invention, helped immeasurably by James Button’s design, and the call to arms to the audience is for us to harness our imaginations in tandem with the show. The young audience responded beautifully to this, but it also struck me that it was a great way for more seasoned hacks to abandon their own scepticism and revel in the playfulness and wit. I loved the shifting role of the narrator, imposing actions on unwilling participants, but also the callbacks to the original play – Henry’s chat to a soldier is wonderfully done. 

One leaves the theatre wishing that this could be the type of thing that was mandatory on school curricula up and down the country – not just as a fresh way of looking at Shakespeare and his plays, but also the wider power of storytelling and how it can inform and educate us, no matter how old we are. It will also make you change the way you see balloons forever. 

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 16th November

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