By Ellen Orange
Last night Thrust Stage presented a refreshing take on Shakespeare’s famous History play, Henry V, presenting the story of the medieval battle through an all-female cast. The female acting talent in the university is considerable, as this play itself demonstrated. However, all too often classic performances require more male roles and specifically the lead roles as male. This can leave little opportunity for female students compared to their male counterparts. The intuitive concept of director, Matt Dann, and producers, Lewis Meade and Matilda Hunter, not only allowed a brilliant opportunity for demonstrating the female talent at Durham University but also allowed the audience to completely rethink Shakespeare’s conventionally masculine play.
The play opens on a very bare stage setting, set against a wooden background with only a stool, which is also removed in later scenes. The setting allows for easy transition through the scenes, particularly when reaching scenes in battle. Otherwise, the scenes were cleverly differentiated through the costume changes, which also served to differentiate characters, as the play was incredibly economical with the cast, with some playing up to three different parts. However, this is understandable; the play has a large number of characters and even with some playing multiple roles the play had a large cast. This was never a staging issue however, and due to the distinctive use of costumes with bright robes distinguishing the French royal family and darker waistcoats and trousers for the English soldiers, the characters were always easy to recognise.
As with the stage setting there were few technical effects which served to embellish the play, keeping it simple and maintaining a rustic feel. The battle scenes employed a recording of a battle to convey what we were unable to see and the characters emerged onto the stage in smoke. However, the simplicity allowed the actors themselves to tell the story. As Jenny Walser, playing the Chorus, tells us, we are to use our imaginations to fill the gaps that the company are unable to convey. The simplicity of the setting as well as the employment of an all-female cast both serve to extend the meta-narrative device that Shakespeare introduced through the Chorus, making the audience very aware that they are watching a performance.
This quality of the meta-narrative was achieved even further through the female cast, as proclamations of masculinity and declarations of what is ‘manly’ may often go unnoticed when spoken by a male but here stood out and become ironic. Furthermore, the premise of the Salic law, preventing women from inheriting, which Henry contests, is an interesting concept when we see the powerful positions occupied by women. We may even say this extends the issues that contemporary audiences would have recognised, as they were under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I.
The casting of the play was done very well. Georgie Franklin, playing King Henry, was full of the passion you would expect of a King in battle, while the comedy of Pistol, played by Idgie Beau, was perfectly pitched, causing a wave of laughter from the audience during the comic goodbye kiss before the battle. The humour of the French scenes also worked seamlessly, with brilliant French from Heather Cave as Princess Katherine and Ellie Gauge as Alice, as well as Lydia Feerwick playing Monsieur Fer. Furthermore, Sophie MacQuillan, Phillipa Mosely, and Ellie Gauge all invoked roars of laughter from the audience in the comic scene featuring their heavy accents.
Overall, the performance by Thrust Stage brought new life and new insight to the old classic. Often seen as a long and even dry play, this performance was passionate, funny and, most of all, original, which can be a difficult thing to achieve when performing Shakespeare. The only negative comment that can be made was that, for the opening night, the audience was surprisingly small, perhaps understandably in the last week of term. However, if you are in Durham there are no excuses! Forget packing, get to the Assembly Rooms, don’t miss the chance to see this fantastic piece of theatre.
Photograph: Lewis Meade