Set plays

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Henry V. Barbican. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Albery Theatre. Royal Shakespeare Company.

It is fascinating to follow William Houston as he changes from the steel-spined but fun-loving Hal into Henry V, legendary warrior king and icon of Englishness. Edward Hall's production is quite different in style from that of the two parts of Henry IV, directed by Michael Attenborough, but Houston is able to develop his character seamlessly.

Here is a young man, ambitious, purposeful, knowing the suffering that the responsibility of kingship can bring (and we know too, having seen him at his father's deathbed), who dons the crown himself without ceremony and goes into decisive battle to establish his position. He knows (and so do we) that his father's claim was weak and that his usurpation brought him terrible remorse.

Henry V begins his reign by ordering the execution of three conspirators. He does not flinch from this and we are not protected from the implications of his decisiveness. This being a (more or less) modern dress production, Lord Scroop, the Earl of Cambridge and Grey are summarily shot upstage. Later, when Bardolph is hanged in full view for looting, no sentimentality is wasted on the king's former drinking companion.

Edward Hall has made the most of the strengths of Henry V, which offers an extraordinarily honest picture of war - its excitement and nobility as well as its horror, cruely and waste. This is summed up in the figure of Henry, who (in Houston's performance) is charismatic enough to lead his men through terror to victory, and in lesser characters, such as Fluellen (Adrian Schiller), the cod Welshman who is the butt of jokes, but also shows good humour and outstanding bravery.

Poppy petals, English flags and chants suitable for a football match, songs by Billy Bragg, soldiers eating their packed lunches - this medieval quarrel stands for war at any time. In battle, huge punchbags represent bodies under attack, displacing the violence while making it graphic.

Catherine Walker as Princess Katherine is charming and funny. The wooing scene is as welcome a respite as ever, while clearly part of the larger diplomatic plan. Directors and styles change throughout the RSC's This England sequence, but the crown remains the same.

For something completely different, try Dawn French as Bottom. Set in a country house in the Forties, Matthew Francis's production allows the wartime shortage of men to explain the gender switch. It doesn't add much - except a huge audience of French fans.

This reading is not otherwise untrue to the play, although it goes for broad rather than subtle humour. It is hilarious and would probably convert anti-Shakespeare pre-teens faster than you can say "Puck".

Heather Neill

Tickets: Barbican 020 7638 8891; Albery 020 7369 1740

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