“This revolt of thine is like another fall of man”
It would be great to live in a world where gender-blind casting isn’t newsworthy in and of itself but we don’t and so it should be shouted out and celebrated wherever it happens, until the day that it just feels rightly commonplace. What should always be celebrated though is the opportunities being given to some our greatest actors to take on powerful leading roles – the intrigue of Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage, the trifecta of Harriet Walter’s Donmar leads soon to be capped off with Prospero and here at the Open Air Theatre, the glorious Michelle Terry rising to the challenge of Henry V.
Insofar as Robert Hastie’s modern-dress production has a conceit, it’s of a group of actors coming together to put on a play, waiting for Charlotte Cornwell’s Chorus to anoint one of them with the leading role – and it’s hard not to feel a frisson of delight as she bypasses the cocky guy pushing to the front to place the crown on Terry’s head. And from then, it’s a relatively straight-forward production, playing out on the wide expanse of Anna Fleischle’s square of riveted iron, props kept to a minimum, John Ross’ movement coming to the fore in impressionistic battle scenes lit beautifully by Joshua Carr.
Terry makes a fascinating Hal, giving us a strikingly mature monarch from the off as she lacerates the French ambassador with every utterance of the word ‘mock’, silences the martial drumbeats with rousing speeches aplenty and invests every tough decision with the emotion it deserves, from Scroop’s betrayal to Bardolph’s execution (by firing squad) marked by the ceremonial mounting of his hat. For me, only the wooing of Princess Katherine (a poised Ben Wiggins, doubling very well with the Boy) lacked a little je ne sais quoi as the production lost a little of its magic glow post-interval.
Still, there’s pleasure aplenty in an excellent supporting cast. The thrill of Captains Fluellen, Gower, Jamy and MacMorris played by Catrin Aaron, Cat Simmons, Jessica Regan and Polly Frame respectively is palpable (Aaron really is superb here), Alex Bhat’s prancing Dauphin bounds onto the stage as if a refugee from Into the Woods or Enchanted, contrasted well by Phil Cheadle and Dwane Walcott’s more serious French soldiers, and Philip Arditti and Beruce Khan stand out as chancers Pistol and Nym.
And perhaps wisely, in these times of increasingly charged political rhetoric with the EU referendum literally on the horizon, Hastie underplays the jingoistic nationalism of the play, preferring instead to point up the moral complexity of war and exactly what we expect of those who offer up their services. The poignant post-war hymn (composed by Yaron Engler) becomes a beautiful act of remembrance, a cautionary note of continental co-operation being the message that shines through. Proof, as if it were needed, that Terry is one of our finest Shakespeareans and that more opportunities for her, and others, to explore the full heft of the canon should be theirs by right.