Crown in hand, Charlotte Cornwell’s Chorus paces the stage. But instead of placing the crown on the head of one of the men angling for her attention, she kings Michelle Terry.
It wouldn’t be entirely correct to call Robert Hastie’s production of Henry V for the Open Air Theatre gender-blind: if anything it’s gender-alert, it’s gender aware. There are several other cross castings: the characters of Gower and Fluellen are played by Cat Simmons and Catrin Aaron (the latter particularly strong), while Princess Katherine is played by Ben Wiggins.
Despite that striking poster image – Terry in breastplate and chainmail beneath the billowing flag of St George – the production places its soldiers in modern combat gear. Hastie’s Henry V eschews tub-thumping for something more morally complex and shaded. The casting of Terry works incredibly well. She’s a superb orator, her delivery fresh and intelligent, sometimes disarmingly gentle, sometimes completely commanding. A true leader. Terry has such a way with verse, the words sphere in her mouth and she packs nuance and emotion into every line, something particularly true during the scene of Bardolph’s execution by firing squad. The weight of the act sits heavy on her, but she does not flinch from what she regards as her duty.
Hastie’s production grows both more intense and more expressionistic in the second half, as the light starts to dim around this green English glade. Some of the early battle scenes have a slightly disappointing Krypton Factor splat to them as the cast tear about the auditorium and trample through puddles, but the Agincourt scenes are bolder and more ambitious. The theatre is flooded with white light as Anne Fleischle’s raised metal stage suddenly pools with water and the soldiers’ movements become increasingly stylised.
While there are a few rather large open-air performances among the cast, Terry is strongly supported. And though initially Wiggins’ performance as Princess Katherine has something of a drag queen snap and swish to it, this too shifts and settles as the production progresses. The wooing scene is suitably disquieting – and also rather telling. It’s interesting that some people in the audience seem more at ease with Terry in tweeds than Wiggins in heels. There is more laughter than you might expect.
This is a thoughtful, careful production, albeit one that’s a bit slow to warm up. It’s also something of a triumph for Terry. She really is one of the most capable Shakespearean actors around. Opening on the eve of the referendum the whole thing feels doubly political too, both in what it says about our leaders and the tools they use to lead, the way they deploy words, and about gender and power: this band of sisters and brothers standing together on this stage makes a statement, and Terry, in lipstick, crown and battle fatigues, is every inch the king.