Thursday, 1 August 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Henry V - Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester.

This British weather can sometimes be a fickle old thing but luckily last night it stayed warm and dry for the Chester Storyhouse production of  Henry V at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre. The Open Air Theatre is celebrating its 10th summer season and initially it all started with a stage built around a tree, a spot of Shakespeare and a touch of Hercules. An amazing 24 shows and almost 180,000 tickets sold later, here I was sitting amongst a full house to witness one of Shakespeare’s greatest historical plays and where the majority of the action takes place on a floor-level arena of chipped wood completely encircled by terracing. Theatre-in-the-round always excites me as the boundaries between the actors and the audience often become blurred and you can at times feel as one and part of the action yourself! Although I was sitting in a covered part of the terracing much of the theatre space remains open just as it would have in Shakespearean times..this is also a reminder to come prepared for all weathers!

This 2019 summer season which is running three productions, Twelfth Night, The Borrowers and Henry V, has seen Storyhouse - which runs Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre - bring us the most beautiful and folk festival style entrance with metres and metres of colourful bunting strewn inside teepees, pretty outdoor lights, and a cute picnic area and bar space. An array of drinks and oven-fired pizza on offer (the pizza was delicious) make this a wonderful night out and that’s even before you’ve taken your seat! The friendly and warm staff were on hand with any questions and there was definitely an exciting atmosphere as everyone made their way over to the open air theatre space as the show was about to start.

Loveday Ingram who directs Henry V in a recent interview has stated; “Henry V is the most controversial of all Shakespeare's history plays because of its exploration of leadership, something so relevant in the UK today, and for that reason the play is most poignant. King Henry is a glorious, charismatic leader, with brilliantly persuasive rhetoric and a warm heart, but he is also ruthless, cold and unyielding, hungry for power and the crown of France”

Well I tend to agree in regard to how actor Joseph Millson portrayed this Henry. He gave a very striking, powerful side to Henry and yet there was a definite vulnerability and sensitivity to his performance. Millson had a watchable stage presence from the off, something I believe a personal thing this ‘presence’ and for me generally only one or two actors have ‘it’ in most theatre performances I see. I therefore was willing his portrayal of Henry would match his presence. Well I can say it did, his physical quirks which I noticed and maybe not everyone would have, made this for me a very natural and impulsive Henry, Millson didn’t push the acting and his annunciation and vocal projection were excellent. I watched him intently as he came and sat in the audience during a scene and not once did he drop the performance.

This production has no set with minimal lighting and technology involved. I believe no mics were used throughout and although this really does make for a true flavour of how things would have been way back in Shakespeare’s day, a few times some lines were lost on me, and I just couldn’t hear. Performing outside and with no extra amplification means that ones' vocal projection really has to be strong and carry right to that very last seat on the back row...and although diction was very clear and mostly I could hear, the few times that I couldn’t were a little frustrating. Modern day costumes and military uniforms were used to great effect and a particular famous speech given from Henry at the top of a ladder supported by other cast members made a really powerful statement. I loved that scene! Where his sensitivity and oft humour makes an appearance is in his wooing of French princess Katherine, played by real life wife Sarah-Jane Potts who herself gave a very coy and charming portrayal of Katherine.

Along with Millson I have to mention stand out performances for me from Samuel Collings who plays the boastful soldier Pistol a character who actually appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays. Collings brought a strong and solid performance to this production and the infamous leek eating scene with Fluellen, played by an equally strong performer Seren Vickers was definitely a laugh-out-loud moment. As for some light relief, well that came in bucket loads,from the talented Mitesh Soni who played multiple roles and had such great comedic timing. A very watchable performer who certainly knew how to play to an audience. Talking of the audience there was some wonderful audience interaction and surprises along the way which always keeps us on our toes. This being approximately a 2hr 40min performance including the interval you are certainly in for the night and as the darkness took over the skies somewhat, there was a subtle lighting change which created a moody night time ambience. The supporting cast all worked well together and juggling the three shows during this season certainly have their work cut out and are doing a fine job.

As Director Ingram says when asked why audiences should come and see Henry V...“There are extraordinary speeches that many of them will know, really famous and moving quotes, big battles, some very funny and loveable characters and scenes, a beautiful and unexpected love story, and one of the most glorious heroes Shakespeare ever wrote, Henry the Fifth!”

I wholeheartedly agree. Henry V is a must-see for anyone wanting to taste a true open air theatre experience and judging by everyone’s faces at the end of last nights performance everyone had thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Henry V can be seen at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre until August 25.

Reviewer - Mary Fogg
on - 31/7/19

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