Henry V / A Woman Killed with Kindness, Viaduct Theatre, London

All's unfair in war and love

Rhoda Koenig
Monday 10 March 2003 01:00

Barrie Rutter's Northern Broadsides Company has opened its spring season with a robust double-bill of faith victorious and honour in peril. Henry V is the most obviously relevant Shakespeare play these days, but, thankfully, Rutter has declined to cater to either side of the current controversy – the king is no blood-steeped maniac, nor are the French decadent wimps. Indeed, Conrad Nelson's Henry is soft-spoken and distinctly blokish. While he lacks an air of majesty (and is not helped by the odds-and-sods costumes – the king, rarely on, is the one with his shirt-tail out), he is gentle and winning in his night-time wandering among the troops and endearing in the wooing scene, practically blushing at his awkwardness.

The production is stronger on its plebeians. John Gully's Nym seems to have been marinated in ale and bile, and Tim Barker is a delight as the ebullient, opportunistic Pistol. The urgency of their cries ("On! On") to the soldiers in front is matched by the force by which they then slump to the ground for a quiet chat. The more dignified Andy Hockley also contributes to the comedy with his garrulous, pedantic Fluellen, brandishing his leek as his bayonet and sloppily embracing the king in an excess of Welsh brotherhood.

I thought Rutter, as Chorus, too smugly genial, but his production moves with commendable briskness (the French princess's attempts to speak English, for instance, are not milked for comedy) and benefits from Nelson's other job as composer. There's no reason for Pistol and the other louts to break into wistful song, but, when they do, it's very nice.

Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) was the first play to consider the amours and torments of non-royal characters – a fit subject for tragedy. John Frankford invites into his home a friend (Gully again) who, while he is away, slips into bed with Mrs F. Meanwhile, Sir Charles Mountford (Andrew Vincent) is imprisoned at York castle, first for starting a brawl in which two men are killed, then for bankruptcy. In both cases he has the swaggering Sir Francis Acton to thank, a spoilt rich bully who also has designs on Sir Charles's sister Susan. The play also takes ample and favourable notice of the serving class: Frankford is grateful to one of his men for revealing the affair, to a maid for saving him from committing murder.

Heywood was Shakespeare's rival, but posterity has left him in the dust. His language is thin on poetry, and his characters sometimes talk with melodramatic absurdity. "Dissembling lips!" Frankford hisses to us, after kissing the wife he knows to be unfaithful, and Sir Francis, advancing on Susan, holds up a bag and says, "She is poor. I will therefore tempt her with this gold." But the actors, in modern dress, have sufficient intensity and conviction to deliver such dated lines without breaking our involvement in this striking – and undated – portrayal of women as trifles in a world of male power and ego.

Four hundred years later, we still feel the pain of the wife who, in the messy aftermath of her adultery, despairingly says of her husband: "He cannot be so base as to forgive me, nor I so shameless as to accept."

Ends tonight (01422 255266), then at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry (0247 652 4324), from tomorrow till 17 March

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