I have found that it can be difficult to make Shakespeare’s history plays engaging as most audiences do not find them as interesting as his other work. This is why The Merely Players’ Henry V was a pleasant surprise, and what makes this contemporary adaptation more interesting is director Scott Ellis’ gender-blind casting.
After the death of his father, Henry V (Zena Carswell) becomes King of England. When the King of France mocks him by sending him tennis balls, Henry decides to invade France. He proves to be a successful leader, walking amongst his troupes and going into battle himself. Henry triumphantly leads England to victory, and in the end of the play, his marriage to the French King’s daughter Catherine establishes a strong relationship between the two countries.
The performance has some very notable aspects which makes it a great piece. Ellis has used a football setting for the play, transferring the war between the two countries into a match between two teams. This transformation is appropriate, as both are about camaraderie and triumph. As there are only five actors, the use of the football shirts helps the audience differentiate between the characters, and highlights the different sides. I especially liked the use of the shirts during the scene where Henry discovers he has been betrayed by Scroop, Cambridge and Grey. Hanging the shirts on a washing line allowed Carswell’s Henry to interrogate the three conspirators perfectly, but also brought elements of comedy to this scene. It was very interesting to watch.
Carswell is very powerful as Henry, and she is able to easily convince the audience of her ability to lead a country to triumph. Emmy Rose’s portrayal of Catherine is very elegant, and when playing the Boy, she is very funny, especially during the translation scene. Equally, Stephen Leask, as Catherine’s lady-in-waiting Alice, is hilarious. The audience could not stop laughing every time he appeared on stage. The team work well as an ensemble, switching between each role seamlessly and presenting each character convincingly to the audience. Even though there were just five of them on stage, the team perfectly presented the play’s “thousand parts”.
The company’s stripped-back approach allows the audience to focus on Shakespeare’s language and the characters. The added bonus is that Ellis has fit everything into 90 minutes. Yes this means some of the plot is subtracted from the play, but for this type of production, in this venue especially, the length is perfect. Additionally, the company’s gender-blind casting gives the talented female actors an opportunity to take on Shakespeare’s great roles. The Merely Players have created a very entertaining and engaging adaptation of Henry V.