Tuesday 3 October 2017

Review: Henry V at the Pop-up Globe, Melbourne

The slogan of the Globe Theatre replica currently adorning Melbourne's Kings Domain is "Shakespeare like it's 1614."

This seems like a missed opportunity to me; I would've gone with "Party like it's 1599." But I'm a turn of the century kinda guy, even if it's the 16th century we're talking about.

Whatever. The point is, there's an excellent scaled-down version of the Bard's famous venue parked next to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with a repertoire of four plays: Henry V, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It.

It's Henry V that Narrelle and I have come to see on an overcast Sunday afternoon which is tentatively threatening to rain. It shouldn't be a problem, as we have seats beneath the O-shaped roof, but the "groundlings" who get in cheap and stand in front of the stage are beneath the open sky and are not allowed umbrellas.

Even though it's a history play and might therefore be assumed to be weighty fare, I instantly realise that it's a great choice for this venue. For a start, the Chorus, the narrator character who introduces the play and changes of location, is perfectly in his element here. When he asks us...
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
... we can look above us and see the "wooden O" of which he speaks.

And it turns out, the "imaginary forces" he pleads for us to use are up to the job, aided by sound and motion upon the thrust stage. The battles with the French army, when they come, are noisy and clanging, aided at one point by the keen of bagpipes.

Despite this sound and fury, to which the audience lends wholeheartedly its support via cheers and clapping, the quiet scenes hold their own. When Henry and others reflect upon the coming deaths before the battle, Shakespeare's thoughtful words are received with respectful attention by the audience. There's true revulsion, too, at Henry's later war crime, his order to kill the French prisoners.

Still, the venue - with nothing like a fourth wall, especially given its daylight performances - invites a broad performance of this history play, and that's what we get. Comedy scenes are played up, stirring calls to arms are cheered, and cast members often walk through the audience, interacting with the groundlings.

The only element I'd question is the overwrought accents and highly effete mannerisms of the French, along with a jokey suggestion of the Dauphin's homosexual desires. Though this treatment has been used in other productions, it seem to harness prejudices that would be best left in the 16th century. We don't need to see the French portrayed as "unmanly" in order to recognise them as the baddies of Shakespeare's piece.

Overall, it's great fun to see the play in the setting for which it was written, and a delight to see audience members (many of them young) enjoying theatre so fully.

There are plenty of seating options from basic to more comfortable, but you can't beat the standing-room-only groundling tickets, which go for about $20. I spent the first half of the play seated, but the second half leaning on the stage, with actors whirling about just above me - and it was great fun.

The time went quickly and I was glad I'd forsaken my seat for the best spot in the house. If you choose this option though, take a raincoat - there's a lot of fake blood splashing about, and it might end up on you.

The Pop-up Globe's season continues in Melbourne to 12 November 2017. Find details and make bookings at its website.

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