Henry V – February 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Pippo Delbono

Company: Compagnia Pippo Delbono

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st February 2007

This lasted for only an hour and five minutes – the projected time was an hour and a half, so we were back in our room good and early – hooray! On with my notes.

My first laugh came when I looked at the cast list, and saw:

“Henry V                                     Pippo Delbono

Friend of the King                   Pepe Robledo

The French                                Gustavo Giacosa”!

I’ve heard of doubling, but this is ridiculous! Anyway, I had a good laugh about that, which left me in an appreciative frame of mind for this production. I realised it was going to be a mish-mash, songs, dance, some of the text perhaps, conveying the feeling of the piece rather than a production of the actual play, so I was prepared to sit through anything at all for the hour and a half. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, till near the end.

We started in total darkness, with some of the actors clumping around quite loudly, on the stage and round the back and sides. Finally, we got a little light, but only on the surtitle screens, as Henry (though we don’t know it’s him at the time) starts accusing various people of high treason. At each accusation, we hear a wheelchair clattering onto the stage, and position itself at the back. When the lights come up, we see three men sitting in a row at the back of the stage, and Henry is sitting? standing? near the front, using a microphone. He calls forward one of the men, who stands up, and moves to the middle of the stage. This was Gustavo Giacosa – he was very tall and extremely thin, with most of his ribs showing, and at his execution, he folded gracefully to the floor.

With the three men off the stage, another man, Pepe Robledo comes on, naked to the waist, with a bucket, and begins to scrub the floor. He informs Henry that Falstaff is dead, and goes through Mistress Quickly’s lines about his death. Henry is just lying at the front of the stage during this.

I don’t remember the order of everything else, but this is most of what happened. Someone brings on a tall plinth, about waist-high for most people, and Gustavo comes on, wrapped up in a long coat and with a muffler, and using the most amazing flexibility of his legs, puts first one foot on the plinth, then steps right up onto it. It was amazing, and got a good laugh from the audience – reminiscent of John Cleese and the Ministry of Funny Walks. Other actors formed a double line either side of the stage, and Gustav calls out “The King, the King” several times. Henry comes on, fairly diffident at this time, and gradually growing in confidence. Gustav leaves the plinth, and the other actors also leave the stage, as Henry starts shouting “I want France”. The way he said it was very funny. Then we saw the Dauphin, elegantly dressed, sitting on a chair, talking about tennis balls – all colours of balls. After this, the rest of the male ensemble danced their way onto the stage, some hand-in-hand, and formed up behind him. He was laughing a lot, and waving his long limbs around. This became the paean of praise for his horse, and for once, we actually get to see the fantastic horse walking onto the stage (an actor wearing an elaborate horse’s head headdress), opening its fan and standing on the chair to sing a lovely song to the enthralled ensemble. Very talented, this horse.

When in France, and around the “Once more unto the breach” speech, we see the ensemble, finishing with Gustav, assemble themselves into an emotionally moving sculpture to the rear of the stage. The first actor places himself very carefully, lying along the floor, and the others place themselves so they can lean gently on him, and in this way they build up a mound of human bodies. This obviously represents the many dead, on both sides, as a result of the war. There’s also a lot of holding hands over faces, and especially eyes, as the number of dead makes its impact. Later, another symbol of death occurs when the ensemble enter in a line, and start to lay themselves on the stage from the front to the back, lying on their backs, to the sound of Henry reading out the list of the dead. Once done, Henry takes the opportunity to leap around a bit over their bodies and do his peculiar little dance routine, which I still have no explanation for.

And it was around this time that I started to lose interest in the piece. One major symbol of death was fine, but this went on so long it started to become overstated. Fortunately, there wasn’t much to go. Pepe came on, minus an arm and a leg, using a big metal pole as a crutch, and thumping it into the ground very emphatically. He then starts crying out “The war is won”, and seems to be grinning from ear to ear, although in this situation, it’s a little difficult to tell if he’s smiling or crying. He does look at Henry, and the two of them exchange looks of satisfaction, but then Pepe moves back, and the tone changes – he seems to be grieving. Then the actors rose from their places, congregating towards the back of the stage, and after a few more lines from Henry, he and Pepe move to join them and the lights go out. That’s all folks. They take their bows, making the most of it before they go off. A number of people seemed to have really liked it, but I have heard louder applause in the Swan.

Other points include the horse coming on to grieve over the dead body of the Dauphin – I think this happens before the mass grave demonstration towards the end. There was a lot of music used during the production – possibly taped – songs of various kinds, and often played at the limit of endurance, even with a little distortion to the sound at times. The whole production had a balletic quality; they used movement and semi-dance a lot, and the whole piece looked choreographed. The performances were mainly external – based on movement rather than internal emotions and thoughts.

Overall, I got some ideas from it, and I did enjoy some of the humour. The cast, particularly the two leads, seemed to be very good at engaging with their audience to tell their story, and it was easy to get involved right away. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this kind of theatre again, but I wouldn’t completely avoid it either. We both agreed it was a good job we’d booked to see Merry Wives The Musical again this trip, as we might have felt a bit cheated at only getting an hour and a bit of performance out of a trip to Stratford.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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