Review: Henry V, Theatre Delicatessen ★★★★

The “sleeping sword of war” that is awoken by Henry V upon his reclaiming of land from France seems never to have lain dormant in Theatre Delicatessen’s immersive imagining of Shakespeare’s history. Led by soldiers into the bowels of the company’s new Marylebone home, transformed into a realistically rendered military barracks, the war here has begun even before the first line of dialogue is uttered. Conflict, in director Roland Smith’s production as in Shakespeare’s text, is always at the fore.

This interpretation sits somewhere between invention and tradition; the immersive nature of the performance, with audience within spitting distance of actors – sometimes quite literally – gives the piece new texture, but the concept of the production is organically born from the text. Although immersive theatre is undeniably in vogue, Theatre Delicatessen’s point seems to be to extend the world of the play in a way that is naturally hinted at by the play itself. As the chorus asks us to turn our imagination to the courage and military achievements of the eponymous King, there is a fitting sense that we are being invited to participate.

At its essence, war is under the microscope. The uncomfortable paradox of the story told by Shakespeare is drawn out by this production, which juxtaposes the bleak realities of conflict with the simple fact that that we are being told a tale of celebrated military success. At the production’s most poignant, medics shudder against the blasts outside the barracks, while Katharine Heath’s detailed, evocative performance space is dominated by a pristine white-clothed table waiting to receive the wounded.

In Philip Desmueles’ committedly valiant King, who shines within an accomplished ensemble, we see a compelling portrait of victory

Smith also recognises, however, that “men are merriest when they are from home”, opening the piece with a scene that plays with the proximity of enjoyment and danger. Despite the destructive consequences, war continues to hold a certain glamour and romanticism that is summed up in Henry’s rousing “band of brothers” speech and is not shied away from in this production. In Philip Desmueles’ committedly valiant King, who shines within an accomplished ensemble, we see a compelling portrait of victory.

But perhaps the strongest message to be conveyed about war is its inescapability, as reflected in the very form of this immersive experience. Even Henry’s religious advisers are trussed in military gear; his marriage to Katherine is agreed with the same handshake he might use for a truce; there is an overarching structure of past, present and future in the references to ancient warriors, the play’s historical grounding and the production’s modern dress. The only regret, as the narrator slings his gun over his shoulder to depart, is that this concept is not explored even further.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 30th June
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