Stage, Theatre & TV11th February 2014

Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre: Once More Unto the Breach!

Richard and Joanna Turner enjoy theatre outings, and despite losing his hearing, captioned performances still allow them both to enjoy it

by Richard Turner

I remember seeing the original film version of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ play several years ago before I lost my hearing.  It starred Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role as Henry V and it was made during the Second World War in 1944. This film adaptation was made at a time when public morale in Britain was low due to the devastating effects of the War and enforced austerity.

It was partly funded by the British government who wanted to boost morale by displaying the patriotism and courage of King Henry V, who led his troops into battle and invaded France on St. Crispin’s Day in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, as part of the Hundred Year’s War against France. The government wanted to recreate the patriotic spirit of Henry V’s time in the British people living in World War II. I remember thinking how rousing Laurence Olivier’s motivational speeches were and they left a lasting impression on me.

When I saw that STAGETEXT were captioning a performance of the Michael Grandage production currently being shown at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, at first I was not sure whether I wanted to see it because I thought it would not be the same now if I wouldn’t be able to hear the words spoken in the powerful rousing speeches. But my wife Joanna persuaded me to go with her, as she was really excited about seeing Jude Law playing the leading role.

This is the fifth play in Michael Grandage’s current season at the Noel Coward theatre. We’ve seen his two previous plays, ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ and Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the same theatre, which were both completely different but very good. His plays have brought a new, younger audience to the West End, with more than a quarter of tickets being sold for ten pounds.

When we arrived at the theatre, we had a chat to some of the Directors from STAGETEXT and a few other people we recognised from ‘Coriolanus’ and other captioned performances we’d been to previously. It is great to meet such friendly faces at these captioned events, which makes it really sociable.

The view of the two caption units at either side of the stage was very good from our seats in the circle and being at eye level, I didn’t have to move my head up and down from the stage to the caption units.

The actors were all in period costumes and the stage set design was in the historic period of the time, unlike the other productions of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve been to recently, which were all set in modern times. The only actor who wore modern dress was the Chorus, who appeared on the stage throughout the play to narrate the story to the audience dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

The acting was superb and the storyline was dramatically gripping right from the start. Jude Law as King Henry seemed to dominate the stage with his powerful charismatic presence, particularly when he was giving his rousing, inspirational speeches to stir his British troops into battle against the French. Although I couldn’t hear the exact words that he spoke I could feel the power of their meaning as they resonated through his determined body language and confident facial expressions. Reading his rousing speeches via the captions made me more aware of the power and richness of Shakespeare’s language, which seems to transport you to a world where you believe that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.

When I heard Jude Law speaking the lines of one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s plays when King Henry is persuading his troops to take the city of Harfleur in France like a natural born leader, I could really imagine the powerful impact of these motivational words. It started with “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” and ended with a rousing “Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”

The plot isn’t all about rousing speeches and displays of patriotic bravery on the battlefields of France though. There were plenty of comedy scenes too, which act as a light-hearted pause among the dramatic storylines.  Jude Law showed off his acting skills by performing these really well and they also revealed the complex, more human side of Henry V. For instance, in the final Act he is trying to woo Princess Katharine, the King of France’s daughter. This scene is hilarious because of the language barrier between them since he cannot speak French and she only speaks very basic broken English, which she has learned from her maid. In this scene Henry comes across as warm, funny and sensitive in his awkward attempts to woo her.

I thought that Jessie Buckley, the actress who plays Princess Katherine, played her role really well and she was really funny. In fact the rest of the supporting cast were excellent too. Ron Cook the actor who played the alcoholic, mischievous character Pistol was superb, as was Matt Ryan, who played the very funny Welshman Fluellen.

I left the theatre feeling uplifted and really pleased that I had seen this great production. It brought back good memories of why I had enjoyed the original Henry V film with Laurence Olivier in it all those years ago.

The next day I went to hospital to have my cochlear implant assessment. It was quite stressful undergoing all those tests, but hopefully it will all be worth it after I have had the implant and I can start my new life. Going to captioned theatre performances and accessible events like this really help to lift my spirits and build my confidence. That is massively important to me. I am already looking forward to the next one!

You can read more from Richard in his own blog

Article by Richard Turner

posted in Entertainment / Stage, Theatre & TV

11th February 2014