Words: Paul Crofts/Photos: Paul Crofts and Mark Carline
Being actively involved in theatre means I often miss getting to see some of the other many productions on offer in Chester and the surrounding areas and so it has been with the productions staged at the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in recent years. I was delighted therefore to finally have the opportunity to see one of the plays on offer this year as Chester’s very own open air theatrical experience celebrates its 10th birthday.
Even on a slightly chilly evening with the ever present threat of rain (this is the British Summer after all), the open air theatre has an allure of magic about it, the setting itself all part of the theatrical experience, with its new entrance and bar area providing a welcoming, festival feel.
Having navigated my way to the correct entrance with the help of the wonderful volunteer stewards, I made my way, trying not to slip on the well trodden muddy patches of ground, into the arena and settled into my rather quirky cushion/seat on the tiered seating area. As the play began, champagne corks popped and the contents of picnic hampers were eagerly devoured, such a typically British thing to do.
Knowing the fine reputation Storyhouse has built up for its home-produced shows, I was intrigued to see how they would tackle Henry V. No sooner has the production directed by Loveday Ingram begun than the background and setting for one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works emerged – Brexit and, with it, the challenges currently facing our own political and constitutional system.
The clever use of the European Union flag throughout leave us in no doubt that this production is as much about portraying an historic English battle with the French and one leader’s ambitions as it is about what our future relationship with Europe should be (sounds familiar?). The symbolic burning of a blue flag containing one single large gold star was one such pointed reference, the tearing up of a treaty offered by the French another (new Brexit agreement anyone?).
Leading man Joseph Milson as Henry V makes for a confident and imposing presence but there is also a beautiful vulnerability in his portrayal of a king wrestling with the challenges of leadership.
There were also some notable performances from the supporting cast. I loved Samuel Collings’s swaggering, cocky Pistol, a sort of modern day wide-boy, a loveable rogue who would sell his own granny for the right price and Seren Vickers who brought a wonderfully warm Welsh charm to the character of Fluellen. I wonder just how many of the audience clocked her tender rendition of the beautiful Welsh lullaby Suo Gan in one particular scene, a nice touch and very neatly done.
There were, of course, some stand out moments in the production, not least King Henry’s famous battle cry which Joseph Milson made very much his own. The production works brilliantly in the intimate setting of the outdoor theatre space and makes clever use of a minimal amount of props with the use of percussion and even an electric guitar all adding greatly to the atmosphere.
If I have one criticism it was that when the cast were addressing their lines to audience members on the other side of the auditorium from where I was sitting, the lines were lost in the ether. A bit more projection would not have gone amiss here and there. That said, it did not detract too much from the overall experience. I’ll certainly be back to see what our very own open air theatre has to offer next year. I might even take a picnic!
Henry V runs at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre until 25 August. Full details and online booking at https://www.grosvenorparkopenairtheatre.co.uk/
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