Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre: Once More Unto the Breach!

I remember seeing the original film version of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ play several years ago before I lost my hearing.  It starred Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role as Henry V and it was made during the Second World War in 1944. This film adaptation was made at a time when public morale in Britain was low due to the devastating effects of the War and enforced austerity.

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It was partly funded by the British government who wanted to boost morale by displaying the patriotism and courage of King Henry V, who led his troops into battle and invaded France on St. Crispin’s Day in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, as part of the Hundred Year’s War against France. The government wanted to recreate the patriotic spirit of Henry V’s time in the British people living in World War II. I remember thinking how rousing Laurence Olivier’s motivational speeches were and they left a lasting impression on me.

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When I saw that STAGETEXT were captioning a performance of the Michael Grandage production currently being shown at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, at first I was not sure whether I wanted to see it because I thought it would not be the same now if I wouldn’t be able to hear the words spoken in the powerful rousing speeches. But my wife Joanna persuaded me to go with her, as she was really excited about seeing Jude Law playing the leading role.

This is the fifth play in Michael Grandage’s current season at the Noel Coward theatre. We’ve seen his two previous plays, ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ and Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the same theatre, which were both completely different but very good. His plays have brought a new, younger audience to the West End, with more than a quarter of tickets being sold for ten pounds.

When we arrived at the theatre, we had a chat to some of the Directors from STAGETEXT and a few other people we recognised from ‘Coriolanus’ and other captioned performances we’d been to previously. It is great to meet such friendly faces at these captioned events, which makes it really sociable.

The view of the two caption units at either side of the stage was very good from our seats in the circle and being at eye level, I didn’t have to move my head up and down from the stage to the caption units.

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The actors were all in period costumes and the stage set design was in the historic period of the time, unlike the other productions of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve been to recently, which were all set in modern times. The only actor who wore modern dress was the Chorus, who appeared on the stage throughout the play to narrate the story to the audience dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

The acting was superb and the storyline was dramatically gripping right from the start. Jude Law as King Henry seemed to dominate the stage with his powerful charismatic presence, particularly when he was giving his rousing, inspirational speeches to stir his British troops into battle against the French. Although I couldn’t hear the exact words that he spoke I could feel the power of their meaning as they resonated through his determined body language and confident facial expressions. Reading his rousing speeches via the captions made me more aware of the power and richness of Shakespeare’s language, which seems to transport you to a world where you believe that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.

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When I heard Jude Law speaking the lines of one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s plays when King Henry is persuading his troops to take the city of Harfleur in France like a natural born leader, I could really imagine the powerful impact of these motivational words. It started with “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” and ended with a rousing “Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”

The plot isn’t all about rousing speeches and displays of patriotic bravery on the battlefields of France though. There were plenty of comedy scenes too, which act as a light-hearted pause among the dramatic storylines.  Jude Law showed off his acting skills by performing these really well and they also revealed the complex, more human side of Henry V. For instance, in the final Act he is trying to woo Princess Katharine, the King of France’s daughter. This scene is hilarious because of the language barrier between them since he cannot speak French and she only speaks very basic broken English, which she has learned from her maid. In this scene Henry comes across as warm, funny and sensitive in his awkward attempts to woo her.

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I thought that Jessie Buckley, the actress who plays Princess Katherine, played her role really well and she was really funny. In fact the rest of the supporting cast were excellent too. Ron Cook the actor who played the alcoholic, mischievous character Pistol was superb, as was Matt Ryan, who played the very funny Welshman Fluellen.

I left the theatre feeling uplifted and really pleased that I had seen this great production. It brought back good memories of why I had enjoyed the original Henry V film with Laurence Olivier in it all those years ago.

The next day I went to hospital to have my cochlear implant assessment. It was quite stressful undergoing all those tests, but hopefully it will all be worth it after I have had the implant and I can start my new life. Going to captioned theatre performances and accessible events like this really help to lift my spirits and build my confidence. That is massively important to me. I am already looking forward to the next one!

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Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse: Captioning Brings People Together

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Something really great happened this week, which reminded me of how powerful social media is if it is used in a positive way as a tool to share information and to connect with other people. This is so different to the negative aspects of it, which we hear about a lot these days, when it is used as a tool to threaten, bully or abuse other people online.

A few months ago, I was chatting on the Faceboook group forum called ‘Pardon?  I’m deaf: When will you listen?’ This forum was set up by Suzie Jones and it aims to improve access and communication for deaf and hard of hearing people. Alex, a young woman who is profoundly deaf and lives in Yorkshire, posted a comment that she wanted to see the production of Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’ at the Donmar Warehouse in London, which was going to be captioned by STAGETEXT. She was really disappointed as she couldn’t get tickets for her and her mother to see it as it was sold out. Tom Hiddleston, who was playing the leading role, is her favourite actor and she had been really looking forward to seeing him at this performance.

I posted a reply that I had recently managed to buy two tickets for my wife and I and I asked her if she had tried getting them via the National Theatre’s access list. Theatres often reserve tickets at reduced prices for people with a hearing loss who need to access the captions. A while later I read another post from Alex saying that she was overjoyed that she had managed to get the tickets after all via the access list. She thanked me for signposting her to the access list and she was thrilled that she had managed to get hold of the tickets after all.

I was really pleased for Alex. I arranged to meet her and her mother for dinner near the theatre before the performance. It was all thanks to ‘Pardon’. This is an example of social media done really well and it is great that forums like this exist so that deaf and hard of hearing people can exchange information, find solutions to problems and campaign for better access to events and services. It is also great that I have made a lot of new friends like Alex through ‘Pardon’ and we stay in regular contact.

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The other night when I met Alex and her mother before the play her excitement about seeing Tom Hiddleston was really palpable. It was lovely to meet them both and it turned out to be a really sociable evening. Before the play started we went into the bar for a drink and we met and had a quick chat with Nicholas Burns and Steve Pemberton, two of the actors from the TV series ‘Benidorm’, which Joanna really loves, so that was an unexpected bonus.

Once inside we met some of the people from STAGETEXT, who were chatting to the Donmar’s Artistic Director, Josie Rourke, about captioning. The founders and Chair of STAGETEXT are so passionate about their love of theatre that when they talk about it their passion and enthusiasm is infectious and affects us all. Josie agreed with us that captioning works really well in the theatre. We talked about how it helps everyone understand the play, not just deaf and hard of hearing people because of the old English language used in Shakespeares’ plays, which is easier to follow if you can read it as well as trying to listen to the actors speaking the dialogue.

It was the first time I have ever been to the Donmar. It is really small and intimate, with seating for only 250 people. We had great seats right opposite the caption unit close to the stage and we were sitting amongst lots of other deaf and hard of hearing people of all ages. In fact we were so close to the stage that it almost felt as if we were part of the action, particularly the really gory, bloody parts. Alex said she found it really exciting to watch, especially being in such close proximity to Tom Hiddleston. There was an amazing energy about this production, with the acting appearing raw and electric.

The set design was modern and stark, which added to the raw, dark atmosphere of the play. The actors were dressed in a mixture of traditional robes and modern clothes. Tom played the role of Coriolanus very convincingly, I thought. Coriolanus is a fearless and brave Roman character, who has fought many battles and killed his enemies with a conviction that he has the divine right to win battles and be a leader of his people.

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He was also portrayed as an arrogant and proud character, who refused to listen to the demands of the Roman people. They eventually turned against him and exiled him from Rome because of his lack of sensitivity to their plight and apparent scorn for them. He also refused to listen to the heart-wrenching plea by his mother and his wife not to seek revenge by joining forces with his former enemy Aufidius and trying to win back Rome.

In the end it is his arrogance and pride, which leads to his downfall. Because Aufidius does not trust him anymore he betrays him and murders him brutally. In the final scene after he is murdered he is hung upside down, with blood pouring onto the stage. This is a very powerful and graphic scene, brilliantly acted by Tom Hiddleston.

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Apart from Tom, Deborah Findlay, the actress who played the role of Volumnia, his mother, played her role with real strength of character and emotion. She managed to show us how Coriolanus had been moulded into the man he was because of the way that she had brought him up to believe that there is true honour in fighting, even to your death, while there is no room for cowardice or weakness in a man.

I really enjoyed this performance and thought it was brilliant that Alex was able to see it too with her mother. She came out of the theatre buzzing with excitement about the play and fulfilling her dream to see Tom Hiddleston.

Going to captioned plays like this makes me feel more positive and helps to build my confidence. It is also great to meet friends and make new ones at these performances and events, which are made accessible to us via captioning. When I first lost my hearing I just wanted to stay indoors and retreat into my shell because I found it really difficult to try and socialise and to be able to follow other people’s conversations.

Now I find that going to these events makes me feel more empowered and confident. I noticed that this production was shown nationally in cinemas on 30th January, but unfortunately it wasn’t subtitled so I wouldn’t have been able to watch it anyway. It is a real shame that cinemas do not provide better access to films for deaf and hard of hearing people via subtitling like the theatres do with captioning.

The next evening I went to watch my favourite football team Manchester City thrash Tottenham 5-1 at the match.  I felt really happy to go and watch it with my friends after my experience watching ‘Coriolanus’ the night before. I then ended this week watching a captioned performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ at the Noel Coward theatre in Covent Garden, with Jude Law acting the leading role. I’ll write about that in my next blog post. All in all, it has been a great week!

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