Tag Archives: Karl Davies

A Little Touch of Harry in the Night

HENRY V
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 2nd May, 2012

The mighty Propeller theatre company’s The Winter’s Tale delighted and entertained me a few months ago and so I was really looking forward to seeing the other half of their currently touring double bill.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The cast forms a company of soldiers, a band of brothers. Through the “O, for a muse of fire!” opening speech, they take it in turns to appeal to our imaginations to provide all the scenery, cast of thousands and special effects they are unable to bring onto the stage. From the get-go, Shakespeare’s brilliance gets to work. This speech is full of false modesty but it is also a direct lesson in how Narrative Theatre works. The play is crammed with familiar lines but to appreciate the full power of the language you have to hear the rhetoric in context.

Director Edward Hall gives Shakespeare room to work on us. This is a war story showing not just the high and mighty, but also the common men from all walks of life. The clever use of The Clash’s London Calling during one of the transitions brings this to the fore. Actors double and treble up on characters and are chorus to each other’s history, hardly ever leaving the stage. They are a tight and talented ensemble. Humour, Shakespeare’s and Hall’s, counterpoints the darker scenes. The Dauphin (Gunnar Cauthery) gives us a quick burst of the theme from ‘Allo, ‘Allo! on the accordion to play the French King onto the stage. As French Princess Katherine, Karl Davies (it’s an all-male company) is hilarious without being outré. Contrast this with his earlier experience as the traitor Lord Scroop and you have a prime example of what this production does best. Light and dark are each thrown into sharp relief.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry is more effective in the dramatic scenes than the comic ones, giving the men that most famous of pep talks or expressing his heartbreak over the treachery of his closest friends. Henry is Shakespeare’s ideal leader – defeating the enemy, “down” with the common folk and he gets the girl. The only thing he doesn’t do is croon like Barack Obama.

I also particularly liked Chris Myles as Katherine’s gentlewoman/chaperone but it’s unfair to single out performances from this happy few.

The play ends with the marriage of Henry to Katherine, uniting England to old enemy France. But this is a surprisingly downbeat moment. In silence, Henry hands the kneeling Katherine his crown and walks away. It is as though all he has fought for is surrendered. This has resonances with Europe today. We won the war (in case you were unaware!) but we are perhaps in danger of yielding too much power to our continental neighbours. Recent announcements of the sharing of defences between England and France would surely rankle with this King Henry.

A rousing and entertaining production, funny, vibrant and affecting, that proves yet again that Propeller is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to staging Shakespeare today. Edward Hall is a ruddy genius.

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A Play of Two Halves

THE WINTER’S TALE
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, Thursday 26th January, 2012

Propeller, an all-male Shakespearean company, present their take on one of old Will’s later plays and give us a very rewarding evening of theatre. The Winter’s Tale, one of my favourites, is like a fairytale without magic. It tells of Kings and Queens of faraway places – there is also much of Greek tragedy and myth here. Leontes’s fatal flaw, his rampant jealousy, sets in motion a chain of events that strips him of his loved ones and, through the fulfilment of prophecy, restores them to him.

The first half is very dark. The stark opulence (if you’ll allow the oxymoron) of Leontes’s palace – silvery walls and candlelight, a largely bare stage – is populated with courtiers in sharp suits and the ghostly figure of a boy in pyjamas, the doomed prince Mamillius. Mamillius oversees most of the action; he is almost Greek god-like in that he uses his toy figures as representations of the main characters. A model ship represents the journey across the sea. A teddy bear – no, I’ll come back to the teddy bear.

The female characters, in the first act, are created through the effective use of gesture and feminine mannerisms. We see Vince Leigh’s Paulina as the strong woman she is; Richard Dempsey’s Hermione is vulnerable, resolute and charming. Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, the actors were and always had been male. Propeller continues this convention and so good are the characterisations you don’t even consider the lack of equal opportunities!

As jealous king Leontes, Robert Hands dominates the first half, talking himself into believing his wife’s imagined infidelity, taking rash action against her before crumbling beneath the weight of the tragedy he has brought upon himself. It is a towering yet layered performance.

But this is a play of two halves. The contrast between the end of the first and the beginning of the second could not be greater. The shepherd’s sheep-shearing celebrations are a kind of mini-Glastonbury festival, with resident band “The Bleatles” and a flock of performing sheep. It is a loud and brash affair with music ranging from the Rolling Stones through to Donna Summer and a marvellous rendition of Beyonce’s Single Ladies with Shakespearean lyrics. It is a truly delightful moment – here the female characters are garish and bewigged but nonetheless beautifully observed.

This rural idyll is soon disrupted by the arrival of the king of Bohemia, disguised as a scout leader. He sets in motion the chain of events that will bring about resolution and restoration. The jeopardy of the main characters is tempered by the antics of the comical ones: the pickpocket and conman Autolycus (a rousing Tony Bell – think Harry H Corbett does Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison) and Karl Davies (formerly Robert Sugden off of Emmerdale) revisiting his agricultural roots as the Young Shepherd. It is as though Shakespeare acknowledges the machinations of the tragic aspects of the story, far-fetched as they are, require ameliorating with some more palatable and down-to-earth mucking about. It’s a mash-up of styles that works brilliantly.

Even so, the conclusion, with the “statue” of the supposedly deceased Hermione coming to life and embracing her husband and her long-lost daughter is still a moving moment and you leave the theatre satisfied with a story well told.

My only disappointment with this superb production was the handling of the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare. It is always a much anticipated moment, Exit – pursued by a bear. Here, although foreshadowed by Mamillius cavorting around with a bearskin rug, we are shown a doll being smashed into by a teddy bear. It fits director Edward Hall’s concept of the production but I wanted something bigger and more surprising. I wanted to see a bear, damn it. It was a fleeting disappointment soon dismissed by my admiration and appreciation of this excellent company.