Last May, when terms like self-isolation and social distancing were as absent from everyday vernacular as some of Shakespeare’s more obscure language, The Barn Theatre in Cirencester mounted a production of Henry V, which brought this iconic story vividly to life for a modern audience. Now, as theatres across the nation sit empty, The Barn, like so many others, face their biggest battle yet. But with modern technology, there are, thankfully, alternative ways for theatres to share their work, meaning it’s once more unto the breach for this production, as archive footage is shared online.
Shakespeare’s plays have often been brought in to modern day settings, but rarely do they manage to combine the original prose with contemporary surroundings in such an accomplished way, as has been achieved here by director Hal Chambers.
Insulted by the French Dauphin, the newly crowned King Henry lays claim to French soil and leads his soldiers to battle. The once wayward Prince, who Shakespeare introduced to audiences in Henry IV Part One and Part Two, finds himself having to take responsibility for his actions.
The England in Henry V is one that is bitterly divided and scarred by civil wars, with another foe sitting just across the English Channel. In early 2019, when the production ran in Cirencester, England once again was split politically, with a large proportion of the population viewing Europe as the enemy. It is though, the class divide which this production so astutely captures, the foot soldiers drawn from a betting shop as Henry dances in a trendy nightclub.
The play is known for its stirring and powerful speeches, and in the title role Aaron Sidwell brings an intensity and compassion to these large chunks of text that will not only satisfy Shakespeare afficionados, but also those who are experiencing Shakespeare for the first time. But it’s not just the language that’s melodic here, as Harry Smith’s exhilarating compositions bring a tense and pulsating ambiance to this visually compelling piece.
Emily Leonard’s scaffolding inspired set and military fatigues play a big part in the modernisation, but more subtle hints exist in Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s lighting design and projections from Benjamin Collins, that include rolling news footage. The King of France becomes a Queen (Sarah Waddell), which makes the handing over of Katharine all the more shocking.
Lauren Samuels is a charming ‘Kate’, and, like most of the cast, multi-roles. It is as ‘Boy’ she is perhaps most able to flex her acting talent, with nuanced nods to the importance of class divide in this story. With war at the heart of Henry V, there are some visually outstanding fight scenes thanks to Christos Dante, and the overall look that Hal Chambers has achieved is one of explosively frenetic energy.
In the prologue to Henry V the chorus, here voiced by the ensemble cast, apologises to the audience for the limitations of the theatre in the telling of this story. But in contrast, the Barn has nothing to apologise for, instead they have removed the constraints that often come with Shakespeare and opened it up to a whole new audience in an intuitive, vehement and visceral production that reminds us all why we must fight to save venues like The Barn.