Fringe Box



Stage Dragon Review: Henry V in the ‘Austere Splendour’ of Guildford Cathedral

Published on: 22 Jun, 2023
Updated on: 21 Jun, 2023

By Alice Fowler

The austere splendour of Guildford Cathedral lends its own majesty to Guildford Shakespeare Company’s first summer production, Henry V.

As the snow-white shirt of Henry (Gavin Fowler) shines in the gathering dusk, we can well believe we are watching a young, still inexperienced king rally his nation to “awake our sleeping sword of war” and confront its old enemy, France.

The heat of battle: the king (centre) and his soldiers take to the field at Agincourt in Henry V at Guildford Cathedral performed by the Guildford Shakespeare Company. Photo Steve Porter.

As the play unfolds, we the audience – responding to the repeated cry, ‘To France!’ – move with the actors round the cathedral’s external walls. Thus its precincts serve as the setting for an inn – with flying apples, ribaldry and a string of sausages – as well as the famous Field of Agincourt.

‘We must bear all’: Henry (Gavin Fowler) weighs the burden of his crown. The Guildford Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V at Guildford Cathedral. Photo by Steve Poter.

Fowler as Henry is excellent, transforming before our eyes from a ‘vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth’, as the French Dauphin (well played by Matt Pinches) labels him, to a warrior king, empathetic to the ordinary men who risk their lives in his great cause.

This is a play of stirring speeches, many of them familiar, though their power to move remains undimmed: ‘”Once more unto the breach, dear friends” and “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood”.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”. Henry leads his country into battle against France in Guildford Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V at Guildford Cathedral. Photo by Steve Porter.

After the interval, this production really catches light, with straining faces projected on to the cathedral walls, while throbbing music and slow-motion fighting with wooden staves convey the cut and thrust of battle.

The cast of five is strong and works extremely hard, portraying both the English and French courts, as well as ordinary soldiers and four captains: Gower (Nikita Johal), representing England, McMorris (Sarah Gobran) as Ireland, Jamy (Will Arundell) as Scotland and Fluellen (Pinches) as Wales. Dialect coach Nick Trumble has schooled his actors well and accents never slip.

Henry (Gavin Fowler) and soldiers Matt Pinches and Nikita Johal stare out from the austere splendour of Guildford Cathedral in Guildford Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V. Photo by Steve Porter.

Another enchanting scene takes place in the French court when the young Princess of France (Johal) is schooled in English words by her governess Alice (Pinches again). Johal’s mobile and expressive features work particularly well for comedy and this scene is a delight.

This is director Caroline Devlin’s second Guildford Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V at the cathedral (the first was back in 2014). Today, no battle scene can be staged without thoughts of Ukraine, and Devlin also draws resonances from Black Lives Matter and the MeToo campaign.

As Henry speaks of the burden of responsibility a King must carry – ‘we must bear all’ – it’s hard not to think of another thoughtful, sometimes troubled king, Charles III, ascending to the throne.

Henry, disguised as a common man, walks among his soldiers: Nikita Johal, Matt Pinches, Will Arundell and Sarah Gobran in Guildford Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V at Guildford Cathedral . Photo by Steve Porter.

Designer Neil Irish’s sets are simple but effective, with two ladders on the stage suggesting vantage points on a battlefield. As Henry disguises himself on the eve of Agincourt and goes among his men as a common soldier, Harry Le Roy, we glimpse in his interaction with the low-born Williams and Bates the terrible human cost of war. While the English prevail Agincourt, we’re reminded in this agile, fast-moving production that, in war, no side can triumph without loss.

Henry V continues at Guildford Cathedral until July 1. You can book tickets at the box office on 01483 304384 or online here.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *