Henry V and The Winter's Tale, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (4/5, 4/5)


Jingoistic jamboree or anti-war drama? The bracing thing about Henry V is that it is both.

It's a play in which a youngish head of state commits his armed forces to the risky invasion of a foreign power on legally controversial and morally dubious grounds.  Sound familiar?  Nicholas Hytner thought so in his incisively sceptical National Theatre revival in 2003.  And there's a similar trenchant topicality about this current version by Propeller, Ed Hall's excellent touring company.  The performance styles, though, are very different.  Propeller specialise in presenting Shakespeare's plays as acts of communal story-telling by a super-fit all-male cast.  It's a manner that's obviously very well suited to a play that shows you the highs and the horrors of fighting in nationalistic packs with a Chorus as our guide.  This is clear from the magical opening when sweat-stained soldiers in fatigues troop on singing the Pogues's "A Pair of Brown Eyes", discover a crown in a trunk, and pass it round like a baton or microphone, as they each deliver a part of the famous "O for a muse of fire" introduction.

It's very song-driven production -- everything from a ravishing "Te Deum" to Mahattan Transfer's "Chanson d'Amour - ra-ta-ta-ta-ta" which underscores one of the deliciously
sent-up French court scenes. On a simple but imposing set of whirling steel gantries and walkways, a testosterone-fuelled cast rampage, while finding ways of resensitising you to the violence by paradoxically hand-off proxy methods: the slitting of a throat, say, suggested by the slashing of a clear plastic bag of blood.  There is something studiedly bloodless about Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's patchy Henry.  With his tight, quite high-pitched voice and clean-cut good looks, the actor is fine at those moments where the king is pressurised into behaving like a calculating, priggish shit but not so adequate when the king is supposed to open his troubled heart to the audience.

The same actors are performing in Hall's beautiful production of The Winter's Tale, one of the late plays of partial redemption from the consequences of past tragedy.  Here Hall puts great, telling emphasis on Mamillius, the little boy who dies because of his father's irrational jealousy.  In poignant boyish pyjamas, Ben Allen's Mamillius watches the show-trial of his slandered mother with bleak desolation from a balcony.  The actor then re-emerges as his surviving, transplanted sister Perdita in the riotous bucolic festival in Bohemia, here dominated by Tony Bell's brilliant portrayal of Autolyus as an ageing northern rocker and then it's back to being Mamillius for a touch that I must not give away.  Go.

Touring then at Hampstead Theatre, London, July 4 - 21