Henry V – but not as we know it!  

The playwright Ignace Cornelissen is making a habit of looking at Shakespeare in a new way. And to the delight of Unicorn Theatre fans, his first, A Winter’s Tale, has been followed by Henry the Fifth. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is; so what exactly is the point of an adaptation?

Director Ellen McDougall prefers to use the phrase ‘a response to’ rather than adaptation. She told Ink Pellet: ‘It’s the most helpful way to explain it. It’s a response to the original for an audience now. There are concrete things in the way it’s plotted that are not the same as the original and those changes in plot have an intentional purpose in terms of the themes the writer wants to put across. It sharpens the elements of the original that speak to the world we live in today.’

So what is the point of an adaptation? Ellen says: ‘An adaptation makes the themes and questions that the original play asks accessible to a young audience. I would be very surprised if an eight year old could read Henry V and take away the clarity of thought they can get from this version. They can see that a play originally by Shakespeare has something to say to them about the world they live in and the people they know and the way those people behave.’

Understanding these themes can help in later study, believes Ellen. ‘When they come across the original play it doesn’t feel like a wall of unfamiliar ideas and language. At least the ideas are familiar. I hope it will also encourage young people to read the play actively and ask questions about what happens, which is the best way to read Shakespeare. There are so many different ways you can interpret it, but this stands alone as a piece of theatre for an eight to 12-year old audience in a clear and accessible way.

‘Shakespeare’s own version is an interpretation and that history is constantly being reinterpreted so you don’t have to think of Shakespeare as the final word.’ Henry V is the story of kingship and the responsibilities thereof; it is a story of war and the power of words to spur people into action.  For his Henry the Fifth, Cornelissen takes these themes and places them in the playground – demonstrating to the young audience how trivial actions can have consequences.

Ellen says: ‘We look at the question of how it is that certain people are able to make a decision to go to war and have the responsibility for all those lives that might be lost. It’s also how a disagreement between two people might evolve into something of the scale of a war. As their argument escalates you can see that it started a bit like a disagreement in the playground.’

In Cornelissen’s play, the role of Katherine is ‘upgraded’ to a more familiar feisty and independent woman, to Ellen’s delight. She says: ‘In the original when Henry wins France he says he’d like to marry Katherine. The French king agrees because it helps diplomatic relations between the countries, and Katherine marries this man whose language she barely speaks, whose land she’s never been to. I read that this was one of the most romantic scenes Shakespeare had written but I wasn’t so sure!

Ellen McDougall

 ‘I’m delighted that in our version it’s super clear that Katherine has an independent voice and won’t be bossed around and told who to marry. I just felt for a young audience now that’s the kind of princess I’d like them to have an image of rather than someone who happily marries the prince and is defined by that marriage.’

Working with the familiar is a key to bringing the story alive. For example, Cornelissen’s script suggests the armies are represented by different coloured balloons. Ellen explains: That’s the leap you have to make – and this is exactly the same as the original where the Chorus says, ‘we’re not going to be able to show you the reality of a battlefield you’ll have to imagine that’. It’s better to present a metaphor or an image so far removed from the reality to allow us space to imagine the reality. You can pop a balloon and there’s something quite final in that, like a death.’

The adaptation is explored in an excellent teacher resources pack available from www.unicorntheatre.co.uk. The play runs until November 16


In other Shakespeare news…

Shakespeare’s Globe will be tackling Merchant of Venice for its Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank season. Excellent CPD also offered. For details see online at www.playingshakespeare.org or call 020 7902 1435.

A Bollywood take on Cymbeline should be a treat – created by Midland-based Phizzical with Belgrade Theatre Company, the play is set in Bombay in 1993. The tour takes in various venues until December 5.

Douglas Rintoul’s Transport theatre company creates a terrifying vision of displacement in his As You Like It using a multinational cast to reflect the world in which we live. He says: ‘Our production starts with a young migrant in Calais learning English by reading Shakespeare. The play is experienced through his eyes. We have cut into the text and re-ordered it.’ Sounds amazing. Check in to www.inkpellet.co.uk for a review.