'Henry V' and 'Winter's Tale': The Propeller Double Bill OR 'Shakespeare's Spielberg moment'

'Henry V' and 'The Winter's Tale', William Shakespeare
Hampstead Theatre, Friday 6th July 2012
Written for The Ham & High

If Shakespeare had been around in time for cinema (we can but dream) then 'Henry V' would've been his biggest blockbuster. This is Shakespeare's 'Saving Private Ryan' moment – only the war is set centuries earlier and the script is infinitely more powerful. It is an exceptionally robust play, packed with soaring speeches, booming battles and lashings of testosterone. Oh, and if that isn't enough for you, Propeller have also squeezed in some rousing music and fizzing, cheeky comedy.

In fact, 'Henry V' could've been tailor made for Edward Hall's brilliant all male company, Propeller, and it plays perfectly to their considerable strengths. This sumptuous play might have its subtle moments but it is essentially an extended battle scene – and Propeller can invoke the bloody, grisly euphoria of war better than anyone else.

The battle against the French is led by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's awesome Henry V; a man who appears controlled but would happily snap your neck, at the slightest hint of betrayal. Lockhart's King looks uncomfortable on the throne but he is completely at home on the battlefield, caked in blood and gleaming in sweat.

Strikingly, the battle bleeds over into all areas of the court. Even when the lads are decked in dresses (prompting great titters), their army fatigues peep out from beneath their robes and their faces remain streaked in mud. This is a world steeped in war, both on and off the battlefield.

The troops rarely falter but, when they do, it's incredibly moving. There are rare lulls in the battle, when the gunfire stops blazing the flashing lights abate. The soldiers suddenly seem horrifically exposed, joking limply and praying for their lives. When the victory is finally announced, the proud army fall to their knees as one, broken and vulnerable once more.

'Winter's Tale' is a much more subtle affair, full of strange plot twists and psychological subtleties. It is one of Shakespeare's most sophisticated works and Propeller, so resplendent in 'Henry V', feel a touch out of their depth. The first half unfolds in a stage encased in silver, shiny panels, designed by Michael Pavelka. It looks a bit like a giant fridge and is makes for a rather cold and unforgiving space. The scenes never fire into life and and Robert Hands' faltering turn as the lethally jealous Leontes only mutes things further.

The show lifts considerably in the second half when the action shifts to that most bonkers of locations, Bohemia. It is a world where everyone seems to be on a permanent acid trip – no one more so than the rogue Autolycus (Tony Bell), who looks a bit like Bill Nighy on a particularly bad day. He's an infectiously nutty perfomer and a backing chorus of sheep-singers only up the absurd ante. But it's all a bit brash for such a delicate play and the quiet magic of this piece – particularly its potentially breath-taking conclusion – is swallowed up in the process.


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