Coinciding with the Battle’s six-hundredth anniversary, the York Shakespeare Project’s production of Henry V recounts the tales of England’s warrior king. In the wake of Henry IV’s death, the young Henry V emerges from his boisterous adolescence and evolves into an ambitious monarch; triumphantly leading his troops back to England after rousing the French in the fields of Agincourt.
Director Maggie Smales should be applauded for granting Shakespeare’s epic history a local significance by setting the play in 1915, within the clamour and camaraderie of the Barnbow factory in east Leeds. As one of the largest munitions plants in Europe during WWI, parallels are immediately drawn between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries and the universal repercussions of wartime – not only for those men valiantly fighting, but the courageous women who sustained the home front. It thus seems apt for the Project to model their ensemble on the single gender tradition of the Elizabethan theatre with an all-female company. Not so much the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as Smales quips, but “The Barnbow Lasses”.
It was this backdrop of trepidation that the audience was led across the stage, bypassing women who exchanged nervous laughter as they went about their work. The set was not overly striking: bleak and dimly lit, strewn with ladders and empty cartridges, although what the scenery lacked in innovation was made up for with an array of captivating performances. A choreographed ensemble piece, depicting the troops sailing to France in an arrow formation, embodied both the vulnerability of “The Barnbow Lasses” and mettle of Henry’s troops going ‘over the top’.
Rosy Rowley is a superlative Pistol, capturing both the plucky determination and utter bewilderment experienced during war. Charlotte Wood’s minor role as Montjoy was similarly impressive, sustaining a meticulous stance as the artful French herald throughout. As the eponymous king, Clare Morley strived for a nuanced portrayal with valiant effort; alternating between inexperience and newfound maturity with Henry’s recently endowed authority. Occasionally, Morley’s character lacked command: her body language faltered and feeble hand gestures failed to match attempts at authoritative tones. Nevertheless, Morley’s characterisation was propelled by humility and never more endearingly so than during Henry’s posturing as a soldier in Act 4. Brimming with interiority, manifold soliloquies captured a crisis in Henry’s conscience. Here stands a king, countering ambitions with inbred “human conditions”: quandaries that ring true with the blame attributed to WWI officers, and arise when any man sends his comrades into battle.
It was this fundamental, unanswered, question of culpability that surfaced again as Montjoy reeled off Agincourt’s endless casualties. Skilfully intertwined into the roll call were the names of the thirty-five “Barnbow Lasses” who lost their lives during an explosion in 1915. As the ensemble filtered out leaving Morley centre stage, it served as a poignant reminder of how losses incurred during wartime creep into every nook and cranny of our lives. In a cyclical reworking of the opening factory scene, the play’s final moments left you questioning the “Lasses’” stoic attitude towards life and death, when such atrocious devastation continues to span not just generations, but centenaries and six-hundredth anniversaries.