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Henry V: Oxford Playhouse
This is a very appropriate time to bring a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V to Oxfordshire. With the repatriation of fallen troops returning to RAF Brize Norton, the whole question of whether we should be fighting a war in Afghanistan at all seems closer to home. Shakespeare’s Henry, too, worries about mounting casualties as he fights his campaign in France — a campaign that has begun in flag-waving fashion with a blaze of cannon balls, drawn swords, and the famous speech: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”.
But the moral dilemmas, and the lethal mixing of power and politics, involved in fighting a war take something of a back seat in Globe Theatre on Tour’s Henry V at the Playhouse this week. Director Dominic Dromgoole concentrates instead on the robust humour to be found in the lower ranks. In particular, the stereotypical Welshman Fluellen (Brendan O’Hea) is thrust into the spotlight, with many a “Look you” added to Shakespeare’s dialogue.
The hilarious (or sick-making, according to your taste) scene when Fluellen forces Pistol (Sam Cox) to eat a enormous leek is skilfully handled.
Nowadays this would doubtless be labelled racist and not politically correct, but Dromgoole also has fun when the French Princess Katherine (shortened to Kate, of course) attempts to learn English from her lady in waiting Alice (Lisa Stevenson). As Kate, Olivia Ross puts in one of the best performances of the evening, developing from a delightfully skittish girl into a level-headed young woman as Henry arrives to claim her hand in marriage.
Jamie Parker’s Henry is something of an enigma. At first he sits quietly while his courtiers explain the legal arguments for going to war. Convinced, he becomes a humane leader. But charismatic he is not, and many of Henry’s great speeches are strangely muted, with no feeling for the rhythm of the words.
Parker has been acclaimed for his performance in the role, and I wonder if I caught him on an off night.This is a thoroughly traditional production: it even begins with an elaborate musical fanfare from a uniformed consort of sackbuts and cornets. There is plenty of colourful spectacle, including an imaginatively choreographed battle scene. But if you are looking for Shakespeare’s debate on the rights and wrongs of going to war, this is perhaps not the production for you.
l Until Saturday. Tickets: 01865 305305 or from the website www.oxfordplayhouse.com