Review: Henry V (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, November 19)

Time to propel yourself to Brighton for yet another stunning and memorable production courtesy of the Theatre Royal autumn season.

The amazing, inventive and compelling production of Shakespeare’s great history play Henry V by the Propeller theatre company manages masterstroke after masterstroke, cramming outstanding performances, dynamic vision, and imaginative genius into “this wooden O.”

Director Edward Hall and this extraordinarily versatile all-male company prove to be muses of fire who ascend the brightest heaven of invention – and then go further, working on our imaginary forces and drawing us in to all the drama, humour, and pathos the play contains.

It is, perhaps, the greatest of the war history plays, yet the modern dress and ingenious set by Michael Pavelka don’t just give a contemporary feel, but also remind us of the timeless message: wars may be fought and won by divine right but there are never any true victors when the pages of history are turned.

But this is exciting stuff: it’s Strike Back (Project Agincourt), as relevant and as powerful today as ever. From the moment the entire cast shares the opening words of the Chorus, this is a fast-paced, pared down, in your face theatrical event whisking us from Westminster to battlefield to bathroom in the blink of an eye and using dazzling simplicity (some of the violence is shocking, even though in most cases not a hand is laid on the character involved) to create both the intimate and panoramic. Add to the mix a great and sometimes wicked use of songs ranging from Manhattan Transfer to The Pogues (as well as glorious new pieces written by cast members Nicholas Asbury and Gunnar Cauthery) and it’s easy to see why this is practically faultless.

How to pick favourites in a universally splendid cast? It is worth noting that every man is worth watching for every second, such is the high quality of acting, and the fact that each man in his time plays many parts is tribute to their skill.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s handsome, square-jawed Henry takes time to show us the human side of the heroic but ruthless king and politician, yet this underlines the complex nature of the character. He seduces his soldiers and the audience alike with his pre-Harfleur and Agincourt rallying cries, and his greatness is shown all the more by clever use of some snatched lines from the beginning of Henry VI Part 1 to demonstrate how quickly the fortunes of a nation may change.  

Impressive performances too from Chris Myles as a Montgomery-like Duke of Exeter and gentlewoman Alice; Karl Davies, a delight as an impish Princess Katherine and the naive youngster experiencing war for the first time; Gunnar Cauthery as an athletic and headstrong Dauphin; John Dougall as the noble French king; Tony Bell as a poignant Mistress Quickly and likeable Fluellen; and Finn Hanlon as a roguish Pistol.

Not only is this another production for which you need to fight for a ticket, but you may even need to go along more than once to take in every aspect of this work of art – and then plan a trip elsewhere in the country when A Winter’s Tale is added to the repertoire.

David Guest