Brown is on stage as the audience enters the intimate and slightly mysterious space that is The Arch theatre.
He is lost in his own world, creating paper figures and almost immediately destroying them, and it is this mood of confusion, renewal and agitation that pervades the first part of this depiction of the life of Henry – one of England’s best-known heroic monarchs, yet possessed by all the human infirmities of guilt, ambition and uncertainty.
You don’t need an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s history plays to be spellbound by Brown’s outstanding solo performance, but it certainly helps to know the background of Henry’s transformation from carefree Prince Hal to trusted and responsible monarch, to triumphant King Henry of Agincourt, wooing and winning France’s Catherine to unite the two countries in the hope of everlasting peace.
The glorious speeches before Harfleur and Agincourt lead us firstly to the union with Catherine and then to the sombre calculation of lives lost in battle.
Henry’s symbolic washing of his hands prepares us for the culmination where we can return to the play’s initial nightmare of England’s future after his death, as well as the relevance of the theme to our own time. The consideration of leadership and how our leaders’ choices affect us seems to be especially significant today.
This is a tour de force for any actor, but Brown carries the play with supreme confidence, moving from anxiety and remorse to determination and inspiration, to the lightness of love and the weight of responsibility for his country’s future.
This was a small audience, and he engaged with each member – the simplicity of the set and subtlety of lighting being used to great effect. Changes of costume and positioning also help the audience follow the chronology of events.
It is little wonder that this production has brought international praise and awards for Brown and the director Philip Parr. The audience was full of enthusiasm for this performance and were captivated throughout.
Henry V (Man and Monarch) is playing at The Arch, Holden Street Theatres, until March 5.
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