VUW, Studio 77 Amphitheatre
February 13-28 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Henry V is a theatrical testament to the titular King’s victory at Agincourt over the French and subsequent unification of the English and French Crowns bringing a (short as it turned out) period of peace. It’s a play that takes war as its central theme – although whether it glorifies war or is critical of it has divided scholars and audience members alike. David Lawrence’s spirited Summer Shakespeare production revels in the battle, but also highlights the grim consequence of war and the moral struggles it produces in the formerly carefree King. Despite a slight anti-war whiff (or just an encouragement towards gaining wisdom out of a querulous time?), Lawrence stays true to form and never strays from a full illumination of the text for his audience, often through ingenious means.

We are introduced to the play by Chorus, played articulately by Allison Walls (she also doubles as Katherine). Alex Greig fills the title role well, charting the development of King Henry V from carefree party lover to battle hardened King. He has a large cast of 35 supporting him. There are many highlights in the case, such as Walls, Jackson Coe as a swaggering Piston who gets his comeuppance from Chris deSousa Smith’s Captain Fluellen (who, despite his bizarre accent manages to capture the comedy of the leek scene). I also enjoyed Jessica Aaltonen as the Boy, although her projection needs improvement when the wind gets up. The rest of the cast perform their individual roles and parts in crowd and battle scenes well, although I did question the use of some of the accents employed, especially the broad ‘Koiwi’ accent of the French King, played by Michael Brady (if that was in fact an accent?) Some cast members also seemed to struggle with longer speeches – I wondered if these could have used a few cuts to sustain audience interest and make them more manageable for the cast.

Studio 77 amphitheatre provides an excellent ‘cockpit’ to hold the “vasty fields of France”. The stage is left largely bare to encourage us to “Piece out our imperfections with (y)our thoughts." Lawrence has elected to use a simple colour scheme of red and blue to indicate the English and the French characters respectively. The colour coded t-shirts and sashes are accessorised with Chuck Taylors – except for the traitorous trio plotting Henry’s murder, who conspicuously wearing Doc Martins. A car is used to deliver the herald, Montjoy to heap more scorn on the English, and a hilariously painted car zooms the hot-headed Constable of France off to battle. There is overall something of a British punk aesthetic, but it suits the play well.

With the funding constraints that constrain most theatre, anyone should jump at seeing a full scale cast present one of Shakespeare’s histories. Lawrence’s sure direction makes the play accessible without loosing any of the beauty of the language. Just make sure you wrap up warmly and take a cushion! As is pointed out in the Director’s note, the exciting possibilities that come out of the Summer Shakespeare make it an institution well worth sustaining.