UCLU Drama Society’s take on this winter’s most popular history play
Henry IV (particularly Part 1) has been a popular choice in London theatre this winter. The Donmar’s all-female production has been met with incredible reviews and the RSC’s two part production transfers to the Barbican imminently. With such stiff competition it was definitely not an easy choice for Drama’s first Bloomsbury show, but Sophia Chetin-Leuner’s production offered an interesting interpretation of 2014’s favourite history play.
Set loosely in the 1940s war era, it reimagines the universality and timelessness of the work. The production was made by some incredible individual performances, and – while it left room for improvement – this large-scale theatrical challenge was managed professionally.
The aesthetic of the production was amazing. The artistic decisions made were consistent and original, and clever use of projection created a simply stunning set. In the first act, the two sets of King Henry’s offices and Prince Hal’s local, sat next to each other on stage for the duration. Additional sets were brought on and off so quickly that blink and you’d missed it. The simple piano, saxophone and drums were used delicately and matched the tone well.
I was unsure about the use of a door on wheels that was brought on for every entrance. It seemed clumsy; I may have missed the artistic intention, and while it was clearly resolving some logistical staging issues, having characters hanging around on stage before their entrances ruined any anticipation. Additionally at times the production felt like it had been directed for a thrust stage. There were whole scenes where the actors had their backs to the audience and many lines were lost. The Bloomsbury is a difficult performance space in many ways and it really separated the boys from the men in this production. Furthermore, in some parts the lighting set off the moment perfectly, and in others characters were in near-darkness for long scenes, which was distracting.
With the opening of the second act, the two separate sides had vanished, united in warfare, but the set change was consistent with the first act and very stylised with a fancy gauze tent (although I’m not sure how utilised it was). Setting the piece in the 1940s was an interesting choice. It could have been made clearer: especially at the beginning, the links were confused and strained, with the identity of the King being particularly unclear. Resetting Shakespeare has been slightly overdone but this period made for an interesting comparison in the discussion of war and honour, and brought out ideas for our own times, examining the tensions and emotions of war. Plus, the scenes with Falstaff and Hal pretending to be King Henry reminded us political satire is a timeless comedic honey-pot.
At first I was unsure about Christian Hines’ portrayal of Prince Hal. I was worried he lacked the charisma and personality I wanted in the role, but I was happily proved wrong. His first monologue felt long awaited, but began to show his character and determination, and by the end of the performance he far outshone the character arc. Eddie-Joe Robinson’s performance as Henry Percy (Hotspur) also stood out. As soon as he started speaking, he completely changed the dynamics, bringing a burst of energy and passion that he carried throughout the play. His wife, Lady Percy (Olivia France) was particularly alluring, and their scenes together felt like another world.
Aside from a slightly dodgy fat-suit and unrealistic thigh gap, Falstaff (Oliver Marsh) was consistent comedic relief. He was very committed in his performance, and his monologues showed his mastery of Shakespeare and command over the complexities of the language. Naturally the comedic scenes with Falstaff and company were a lot more engaging, and the group dynamic allowed the cast to exhibit a range of skills and great chemistry.
As is typical in many of the history plays the first few scenes were quite hard-going. I struggled with Pavlos Christodoulou’s interpretation of King Henry. His engagement with the audience obviously wasn’t helped by not being able to see his face, but I also felt he lacked the authority of the role and command of the stage. His character became quite un-engaging, and at times monotonous. It was a portrayal that could have been developed more and needed more gravity or vigour.
It is easy to forget that this was student theatre when the production was so professional. Not a line was dropped; the cast were well-rehearsed, understood the meaning in what they were saying and were slick in every way. Even the battle that used obvious stage-combat rather than pushing for realism, was sharp and polished. Henry IV lacks the poetry and symbolism of some of the other Shakespeare plays, but this production team certainly brought their aesthetic A-Game. changes to staging and lighting would have made a big difference and maybe help to find that certain something that was missing.
UCLU Drama Society’s production of continues on Friday 14th November and Saturday 15th at the Bloomsbury Theatre
Image credits: Jeremy Wong