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Henry V: Of Land and Sea Classical Season (Susan Elkin reviews)

society/company: Fourth Monkey Theatre Company
performance date: 20 Mar 2019
venue: The Monkey House, 97-101 Seven Sisters Road,London N7 7QP

Photo: Fourth Monkey

Directed by Simone Coxall and staged in the top floor theatre in the company’s own building, The Monkey House (off Seven Sisters Road near Finsbury Park) this is a feistily imaginative, feminist take on one of Shakespeare’s finest plays.

For over two hours you wonder just why Rebecca Wake, as chorus, is quite so edgy, distressed and being grumbled at by other characters. Then at the end – and it’s part of a very neat, arrestingly topical framing device to do with spin and documentary making – she becomes what is arguably the most abused, used character in the play. Another character delivers the epilogue and you’re left stunned but impressed.

It’s a very pacey take on Henry V – no English lesson, or proposal scene and quite substantial cuts elsewhere – and the tension never flags in the hands of this talented company of fifteen young actors coming to the end of their two year rep company training. There are thirty in the class and the other half are doing Pericles back to back with Henry V.

The entire cast is strong – and this version is very much an ensemble show – but there’s exceptionally good work from Caitlin Croke as Girl (as opposed to the boy who normally accompanies Pistol, Nym and Bardolph to war following the death of his master, Falstaff). She is gloriously sardonic and never stops listening and reacting. She is also delightful as Orleans and the traitor, Grey using a range of accents and body stances to excellent effect. Definitely one to watch out for in future.

Ruth Newbery-Payton gives us an icy Henry, every inch the single-minded aggressor and go-getter with very little human warmth. Her Harfleur speech is uttlerly chilling and when she gives the order to kill the prisoners – well before the French have killed the baggage-guarding boys – you are not remotely surprised. This Henry is capable of anything. Also very watchable is Elizabeth Cristo as an attractive, Paris-chic, grape eating Dauphin with impeccable French accent. And Naomi Denny is a sober Exeter with lots of unsmiling gravitas.

With only four men in the cast this is a powerful exploration of female achievement and needs but there are a few niggling problems with this way of doing it. The pronouns have been changed so that all the normally male characters who have become women are referred to as “she”, “her”, and so on. But in most cases they remain “My Lord” and Henry is referred to as the King throughout which seems incongruous. It isn’t a case of gender blind casting in which some males are played by women and I don’t think we’re expected to assume they’re all trans or transitioning. So it feels a bit uncomfortable. I thought some lines had been changed – simplified, updated or whatever – unnecessarily too.

On the whole, though, this is a fine and fascinating production. Fourth Monkey continues to select and train its students expertly.

Photo: Fourth Monkey

 First published by Sardines:
Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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