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Hurray for the new Henry

Western Daily Press, 12th December 1986, Helen Reid

In the English Shakespeare Company’s production of the ‘Henry’ plays, Falstaff wears Army fatigues, Doll Tearsheet turns up in a leather bondage outfit, and some of Prince Hal’s hangers-on are punks.

Sacrilege, or a new way of making Shakespeare’s history plays relevant to a modern audience?

Play-goers at Bath’s Theatre Royal this week, where this new touring company is filling the theatre every night with ecstatic applause, certainly doesn’t find the costumes-of-all-ages approach offensive, and the students in school parties have gained a new insight into plays.

The generation gap between Prince Hal and his father King Henry IV becomes perfectly clear when Michael Pennington slouches on in jeans, while his father wears a Victorian frock coat. When the watch arrives, it’s clear who they are: they wear modern policemen’s uniforms.

Actor and director Pennington, who founded the company with National Theatre director Michael Bogdanov, thinks companies have no right to perform Shakespeare unless they make the plays relevant to modern times.

“This trilogy of plays is full of modern political parallels: Henry IV advises his son to divert the people’s attention from troubles at home by going to a foreign war: think of the Falklands!”

He also thinks that each character in the plays is a recognisable modern type, and that the clothes help to give the audience clues.

“Prince Hal’s lowlife friends are fashion followers, who want to keep up with the latest craze, so they’re punks” (Pistol comes on in black leather, with Hal’s Angels on the back of his jacket.) “Falstaff is a poseur, so he always over-does his part, dressing extravagantly, in uniforms. The Prince is a young tearaway, but also a chivalrous knight, so he wears jeans – and chain-mail armour.”

This panoramic approach, says Pennington, is perfectly legitimate., so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the words or distort meanings. And it’s a handy way for 25 actors to portray 200 characters. “What has thrilled me most is the response of the children. They say they come expecting to be bored, and left hungry to see more.”

It has been a gruelling tour for the cast, who work on a shoestring, with nine performances a week, three of them on one day, but they believe they are in at the beginning of something new and exciting; top quality performances of Shakespeare that go out on tour.

The critics are already saying that the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre had better look to their laurels. The trilogy of plays goes to London’s West End next year, and then to Toronto, after visits to 11 provincial cities. The epic buccaneering style of the enterprise is creating a new generation of Shakespeare fans.

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