Review by Patrick Barnes © www.bbc.co.uk/shropshire 16 June, 2003.
The haunting ruin of Haughmond Abbey is one of the most beautiful places to be on a summer’s evening, and a wonderful setting for an outdoor performance of a Shakespeare but when that play happens to be Henry IV Part One, which features the Battle of Shrewsbury as its climax, there’s an added significance.
The hill around which the battle was fought is clearly visible to the audience from their raked seating, and last evening’s warm and sunny weather only made it a more pleasurable experience.
Shropshire County Drama Group brings together the cream of the county’s amateur actors and turns out productions that put some professional companies to shame. This year’s production is the second play linked with the Battle of Shrewsbury to be performed in Shrewsbury as part of the 600th anniversary celebrations.
Despite its necessarily spartan scenery – a stage populated only by an ancient-looking table and a few chairs in the first part of the play – this production is slick and visually stunning. The wall of the ruined monastery makes a fitting backdrop, but most of all the costumes, including armour and swords, are fantastic.
But this is to take nothing away from the performances of the actors, each of whom was word perfect and highly-skilled at bringing their character to life. And a fair few of them also had to grapple with some realistic-looking swordplay in the grand finale. In fact, I had to constantly remind myself that this was an amateur performance.
Shakespeare’s history plays are notorious for playing fast and loose with historical fact in order to weave a good story, and Henry IV Part One is no exception. Henry IV is hardly seen, and Shakespeare concentrates instead on Prince Hal, building the myth of the wayward youth who came good on the battlefield at Shrewsbury, and Hotspur, here a contemporary of Hal’s. Both the king and Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, despair of their sons – although for very different reasons. The story isn’t about King Henry at all, but about Hal’s redemption and how he changes from a hard-drinking thief to a fitting Prince of Wales and future King Henry V.
Chief among Hal’s drinking buddies is Sir John Falstaff, who provides much of the play’s light relief. With its subtleties and humour, Falstaff is a tough role to fill, and Andrew Jones was excellent in his portrayal.
In the role of Hal, David Shuker also deserves a special mention, as do Peter Beechey as the fiery Hotspur and Ken Allden as Worcester, but it’s perhaps unfair to single out too many in a play where all the cast were so polished and professional in their standard of acting. I’m still not sure about Hotspur’s Geordie accent, though!
Of course performing outside is bound to have its pitfalls, and although the weather was kind, there were other, minor interruptions beyond anyone’s control. Half way through the first act the cast had to compete with the racket being made by the sheep being herded in the next field, as well as the sirens of emergency vehicles on the main road. But this is a small price to pay to see Shakespeare in such a fascinating setting – a theatre just can’t compete.
The first half of the play is performed in pretty much broad daylight, but darkness falls just after the interval, adding to the experience as the ruined monastery is expertly lit up. Putting on a production like this is a major undertaking – there’s plenty of scope for things to go wrong. But on the evidence of the opening night, every aspect of this venture – even down to the car parking arrangements – is well-organised and slick. Everyone involved in this production has done a superb job.
If you can get to see it, even in the rain, it will be well worth the effort. Henry IV Part One runs from Monday June 16th to Saturday June 21st 2003. All tickets are now sold out.