By Jacob Freda
Earlier this year, Cirencester’s Barn Theatre celebrated its second birthday, with a string of acclaimed productions already under its belt. Yet thanks to a little-known virus, it has been forced to temporarily close its doors, which, as an unsubsidised charity, could prove catastrophic.
Out of this uncertainty rose the #SAVEOURBARN campaign, an attempt to expand the Barn’s reach through the power of the internet and, in the process, hopefully secure enough donations to keep it running.
The crowning jewel of this campaign is their critically acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Henry V, first performed in May 2019 and now available online in archive footage, which can be found for free on all the Barn’s social media channels.
For those new to the play, Henry V tells the story of Harry, King of England, after the untimely death of his father finds him thrown into the spotlight. Following an insult from the French Dauphin (Jonathan Woolf) over his less-than-kingly past, he elects to go to war with France in an attempt to prove himself and restore England’s glory (it’s a miracle the production’s Brexit references are kept so mercifully vague).
What immediately strikes you is how modern this staging of Shakespeare’s history play feels. Modern dress productions of Shakespeare tend to fall into two camps: those that slap a suit and tie on their actors and call it a day, and those that actually take the time to establish each detail in a modern setting. Thankfully, this production comfortably sits in the latter category.
Every single scene has its modern setting established and solidified via Benjamin Collins’ outstanding projections: Pistol and his gang meet in a bookies, while Henry’s threats to the French Ambassador take place during what appears to be an EU summit. And while at times the production does try too hard to ‘Make Shakespeare Cool Again’, the care and attention put into the staging more than makes up for any slight missteps.
No production of Henry V can survive without its charismatic lead actor, and luckily Aaron Sidwell is more than up to the task. His performance is electric, charged with energy that is both joyous and destructive, and yet in his one moment alone we see just how much this Hal is winging it: his insecurity finds itself expressed through frustration, as he confides that he knows he’ll be criticised no matter what he does.
Other bold choices yield dividends. The swapping of dialogue means that the Dauphin and Princess Katherine (Lauren Samuels) are finally given a scene together as brother and sister, adding a tenderness to the otherwise churlish French prince. Adam Sopp also imbues Pistol with a surprising vulnerability, exposing the fear and resentment that lies beneath his swaggering masculinity.
Samuels is likewise excellent, encapsulating both the playfulness and pain of Katherine’s predicament during the ‘wooing scene’, which is played with just enough Hugh Grant – esque bumbling from Sidwell to make it remotely believable.
The production’s use of sound, led by Harry Smith and Chris Cleal, manages to create plenty of atmosphere without overshadowing the actors. While I can’t say I’ll be tuning into the soundtrack any time soon (which, along with the programme, is available online for free), it is nonetheless highly effective in what it sets out to do.
That is not to say that everything goes off without a hitch. There are a few noticeable technical issues during the livestream, such as shots being played over each other, leading to key bits of dialogue being missed. I also could have done without the jarring moments of ‘shaky cam’, which are awkwardly interspersed during the mostly static video.
These did little to spoil my viewing, however, and I would still thoroughly recommend giving Henry V a watch to any Shakespeare fan who finds themselves with time on their hands in the coming months.
If you do wish to donate to the Barn Theatre, or learn more about the #SAVEOURBARN campaign, you can find them at: barntheatre.org.uk/sob.
Image: Taken for Barn Theatre by Eve Dunlop