Henry V by York Shakespeare Project
Upstage Centre Youth Theatre, Monkgate, York
Till Oct 31 @ 7.30pm & 2.30pm Sat matinee
Into a thousand parts divide one (wo)man.
The language is Shakespeare’s. The tale is told twice.
The first inkling this will be an extraordinary experience is when the audience enter: weaving our uncertain ways through the 19 all-women cast members as they, in garb and role of female armament factory workers, go about their business.
We are irrelevant as they toil on. This plunges one directly into the action.
The story shifts seamlessly between two eras, with an Edwardian fur stole, and a ‘Volunteer!’ banner serving as Lordly and Clerical robes.
The clothes, tools, and transports of 1915 – and indeed, the weapons, with hand grenades as dangerous as documents that damn a traitor – fit perfectly with the language of medieval conquest.
Special mention must go to Claire Morley’s Henry V, as she brilliantly portrays the slightly manic intensity that obsession requires.
Throughout the play(s) there are echoes of parallels between WWI and the myths of Agincourt, with a senseless execution to rigidly uphold Henry’s decree against looting.
One is reminded of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo; in the event, no one learns lessons from such a death, but rather, by killing the bravest or perhaps just frightened and hungry, morale is damaged.
The story of Agincourt continues to baffle with contradictory interpretations: the sides were more closely matched, says one scholar; the English were greatly outnumbered and yet victorious, claim others.
This question does not trouble Shakespeare, who wrote for court and posterity, but neither does he shy away from what war produces: death, regret, anguish, injury.
In this way, too, are the parallels between Agincourt (dubious conquest; gains soon lost) and World War One (family squabble writ large; the gateway to WWII) a perfect fit. The cast deftly reminds us of the other story, the loss of 35 Barnbow ‘lasses’ in 1916 in a munitions explosion: war is a terrible, bitter waste, no matter the century.
Shakespeare can be dense language for modern ears, accustomed to 140-character Tweets and reality TV, and some actors enunciate better than others, but all succeed in evoking both an imagined (mythic) medieval past, and a 100-year-old wartime tragedy.
Highlights include the banter – in French – between Princess Katherine (a marvellous Lily Luty) and her servant; the bluster of Pistol, played by Rosy Rowley; the withering sneers of the haughty French messenger (Sarah Jane Strong); the afore-mentioned Morley.
I was transfixed every time Rachel Price was on stage: truly talented. Indeed each member of the cast endears herself to the audience as they inhabit their characters.
The play ends as it begins, with the enduring image one of war’s endless hunger for blood and for money.
This is Shakespeare reimagined for the WWI centennial, with a Yorkshire link, and both halves create such a perfect whole it will be difficult to ever envisage them separate.
Now through October 31 2015, at 41 Monkgate Theatre. Book online at www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, or by phoning the Box Office 01904 623568. Do not miss this play.