How good was the Propeller production of Shakespeare‘s Henry V at Milton Keynes Theatre this week? What if I say there were moments when I wasn’t sure which way the battle at Agincourt was going to go?
From initially being a sceptic over modern dress (or just messing-about-with-the-period dress) drama productions I am now – despite that dubious Welsh National Opera outer space setting of Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman – an enthusiast. While last-minute theatre goers were getting into their stalls seats a grubby squaddie straight outta Afghanistan came and stood, watching, quietly menacing, in one of the side aisles. That was the first sign we were in for an experience. When the similarly garbed troupe gathered on the stage and started delivering the Prologue collectively, each actor taking a couple of lines in turn to give us the Chorus’s lines – “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend / the brightest heaven of invention!” – from different positions while going about their business (something would continue to great effect all night), and the house lights were still up, was the second. And the excellence just kept on coming.
“But pardon, gentles all, / The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d / On this unworthy scaffold …” the Bard has them apologise. Yeah, yeah. This was a highly spirited, lusty, loud, energetic, thoughtful and inventive show delivered from a stage set that basically consisted of … scaffolding – brilliant! – augmented by a handful of constantly shifted wooden military trunks and cases (oh, and an occasional chair). The costume design was all over place, but it worked. First World War, Second World War, Middle East conflicts: the twentieth century universal soldier, no less (thanks for that insight, Andy). So, was the play treated as a patriotic or an anti-war text? For this Band of brothers, it has to be both – it’s the only way to do it justice. Though it could be argued the Epilogue may be asking whether, for all the heroism and slaughter, it was worth it; the gains were lost again in the reign of Henry VI soon enough.
There was no shirking the violence, but there was a sly humour beyond the text too. And contemporary relevance. The scenes from Act 1, where Henry sought assurance from the bishops about the moral and historical justification of his claim for France, was pointedly and deliberately played. At one point early on, as the army mustered, they burst into The Clash’s London calling – what a moment! – while a visit to the French camp was accompanied by Chanson d’amour on the accordion. I’ve never seen violence portrayed to such chilling effect in a theatre before; I don’t know how original a technique it was, but the sight and sound of a soldier on each side of the stage laying into suspended punch bags with baseball bats while the victim of these dogs of war writhed around centre stage certainly had impact.
Propeller is, oh I’ll just quote their website, “an all-male Shakespeare company which seeks to find a more engaging way of expressing Shakespeare and to more completely explore the relationship between text and performance” – this they do, spectacularly well. “Mixing a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic, they have been influenced by mask work, animation and classic and modern film and music from all ages.” A few faces we recognised, but being cheapskates as far as buying a programme goes, I can’t give you any names; they all played many parts, save for Henry, who in his shifting moods and modes he played a blinder. Most (it might even have been all) of the cast even gave us a full-throated and lusty session in the atrium in the interval, singing – for charity, a bucket collection – a rousing Wild rover and an ecstatic Sloop John B; a band of brothers indeed.
A tremendous night. For shame, the people of Milton Keynes and surrounds, for the Wood family were in evidence on the opening night. (I got that ‘Wood family’ from Angela Carter; in Wise children, that’s what the theatricals call empty seats). If Propeller are anywhere near, go see.