Let’s not beat about the bush, this is one of the best productions of Henry V that I have ever seen. A site-specific work lurking in the depths of the old BBC building on Marylebone High Street, it is a little difficult to find. The number is on the door, but it helps to look out for the poster in the window.
Having dashed in with seconds to spare before curtain up, I was a little anxious as it became apparent that I was expected to engage with a performer in character from the outset. But have no fear, it mostly ends at the door.
In fact, Theatre Delicatessen have borrowed an old TIE trick of immersive theatre that proves to be extremely effective. The basement is suitably gloomy and, in spite of being quite a large space, rather claustrophobic with a low ceiling and well-timed sound effects of battle. In an odd way, the space is similar to an Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre in that it feels appropriate that we are asked to imagine the accoutrements of battle and the changes of scene, rather then being offered them on a naturalistic plate.
Seating varies, but is nearly all close to floor level meaning that one is either sitting at the same level as the performers or looking up amongst them. It is a sort of fly-on- the-wall technique that can be hackneyed if forced but works perfectly here.
On a day when yet more deaths have been reported in Afghanistan and Iraq and when details of the massacre in Houla, Syria are becoming apparent, this setting of Henry V was nothing if not topical. It didn’t matter that the major battle was Agincourt and that we no longer make alliances by uniting ruling houses in marriage; it was the sentiments of war and the following fragile peace that resounded to great effect.
Director Roland Smith concentrated on the casualties of war rather than the actual battle scenes, with a simulated surgical procedure being carried out simultaneously with the dialogue like a scene from Mash without the jokes. It was an ensemble effort with a small cast playing multiple roles, with the exception of the eponymous monarch, most ably represented by the imposing and regal Philip Desmeules. In a quirky twist on Shakespearean convention, women played boy solders as well as the female roles. All managed to pull off this sleight of character convincingly. Christopher Tester was a particularly good Fluellen.
If there is room for two small quibbles, it would be that Laura Martin-Simpson was much better cast as Gloucester than as Katherine and that the pace dropped from everyone towards the end, although that may be due to an inevitable anti-climax after the terrific battle scenes.
This is a must-see production in a fascinating space and at a time when yet again, Shakespeare seems all too prescient.
Performed at Marylebone Gardens until the 30th June.