2007 - Henry V

A double bill of al fresco Shakespeare

14:46 Saturday 11 August 2007

THE grandest of theatre stages would struggle to compete with Kirkstall Abbey, home to the 13th annual Leeds Shakespeare Festival.

After all, vast pots of money may fund the most elaborate of sets, but can't buy the historic atmosphere of a 12th-century ruin.

This year, with what is now a virtual pilgrimage to within the abbey walls, The British Shakespeare Company more than complement their spectacular surroundings with a wonderfully crafted performance of As You Like It.

Their offering of Henry V, however, fails to forge the same seamless relationship between actor and stage, with the BSC's impeccable comic timing perhaps emphasising a less adept intuition when it comes to one of the Bard's historic heavyweights.


Speculation over As You Like it largely surrounded whether James Alexandrou, better known as Eastenders' Martin "Faaahla", would suit Shakespearean prose as opposed to Cockney market stall banter.

In fact his interpretation of the lead role Orlando makes for an impressive debut and obvious talent for slapstick humour, albeit enhanced by an immensely enjoyable stage connection with Martha Swann as Rosalind.

Swann is the leading light in both productions, delivering a brilliantly witty performance in predominantly French tongue as Princess Katherine in Henry V, a welcome relief in what is otherwise a slightly stilted production lacking in polish.

Unfortunately Alexandrou struggles in Henry V, although his role as cockney army follower Pistol was never going to help sever obvious comparisons with his east end alter-ego. His arsenal of expressions appeared limited to just one – the intense/mean/moody/I'm-not-sure-what-to-do-so-I'll-stare-at-who's-talking look.

Indeed all the cast, partly through quite stagnant stage direction (the abbey grounds cried out for movement, but this was limited even in battle scenes) failed to achieve the same level of cohesiveness which so captured the audience in As You Like It.

Leading man Robert J. Williamson, incidentally the BSC's founder and artistic director, unfortunately fails to inspire the audience as King Henry V.

Undoubtedly enthusiastic but never-the-less lacking in any broad variety of intonation and expression, Robert J. pretty much shouts his way through the performance and, in fact, almost left me wanting the French to triumph.

One wonders whether another company member like David Davies, who connected with the audience both as Duke Senior and Duke Frederick in As You Like It and the Duke of Exeter in Henry V, would have been better in the lead role

Drawing comparison between the two productions, however, is always problematic, as comedy lends itself to audience empathy as opposed to a more serious plotline.

Nevertheless, what Henry V lacks in dramatic impact is more than countered by one of the most enjoyable Shakespearean performances I have ever had the pleasure to see in the form of As You Like It.

Hugely absorbing from start to finish and interpreting 400-year-old jokes in a way that effortlessly triggered mass laugher, this production is theatre at its best and, coupled with the unique atmosphere of Kirkstall Abbey, makes for a perfect summer's evening of entertainment.

The Leeds Shakespeare Festival runs until August 18. For booking information telephone the box office on 0113 2243801.