Vasty Fields

Last week, I saw Passion in Practice’s Original Pronunciation production of Henry V. Last year I saw the company’s OP Macbeth and was interested in what was, for me, a strange listening experience which allowed for some interesting ways of re-conceiving elements of the play. That review is available here. For whatever reason, my experience of Henry V was rather different and I have little to say about the effects of OP on the performance. The pronunciation changes might be thought apt, given the variety of accents the play calls for, but I wonder if the play’s interest in accents actually works against a modern OP performance. In other words, my attention was attracted by accents in the way it would be in any production of Henry V. I was, however, particularly interested in the way the production inhabited the performance space.

I didn’t attend the ‘Gala’ performance at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but instead saw the second of two performances at the Ugly Duck, a Victorian warehouse on Tanner Street which is now used for events and performances. Much has been made about the beauty of the candlelit SWP but I really loved the Loft of the Ugly Duck. It looked a little familiar to me at the time but it’s only now, doing some research on the venue, that I have realised it is the principal filming location for the BBC’s Dragon’s Den (in which a series of obnoxious multi-millionaires try their best to cream as much money as possible out of young businesses). Anyway, it’s an interesting venue for Henry V and its famous Chorus, which asks the audience to imagine ‘this cockpit hold[s]/The vasty fields of France’. From my seat, I looked out across the hall to a window offering an evocative view of trains chugging in and out of nearby London Bridge station. Not even The Globe offers these kinds of distractions to its audiences. At the modern reconstruction, you might hear a plane fly overhead, or a pigeon land on stage, but my window view yielded a greater range of extra-theatrical opportunities.

Ugly DuckUltimately, this was a good thing and worked with, rather than against, the play’s metatheatricality. In the wonderfully melancholic revelation of Falstaff’s death I caught sight, out of the corner of my eye, of another train trundling in to its station. Outside the theatre, life goes on, oblivious. Later, as violence darkened the play world, the theatre too became darker: daylight turned to dusk and the space was illuminated by the unobtrusive candles placed on the window ledges. Sometimes purposefully, sometimes accidentally, the space of this theatre worked in accordance with the play. What seemed like a simple, undecorated space revealed its own surprising power.

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