Immersive theatre often treads the fine line between enhancing experience and aggressive involvement. What starts as engulfing theatrical aggrandizement can quickly trip into the realms of terrifying audience participation - and only attention - hungry stage botherers really enjoy on-stage participation, or those of masochistic temperament. Luckily, Theatre Delicatessen tread that precarious line with tender expertise, remaining stoically on the enjoyable side of immersion.
In their most recent production, we are transported to the barracks of the Falklands War, for a gritty re-imagining of Henry V. London's 35 Marylebone High Street- formerly the offices of the BBC- has been torn up, gutted out, and renovated into a dark, camouflaged hide out, complete with sand bags for seats, barbed wire fences, and an assault course in the bar. The time is ripe for Shakespeare, with the International Festival kicking off this Summer, but if you're looking for a fresh take on the Bard's works, you'd do well to steer clear of the obscure plays in obscure languages that most of London sees fit to offer, and opt for this alternative take on Shakespeare that isn't going to leave you hankering after subtitles.
The experience begins almost as soon as you step into the building, as a squaddie carries out a rigorous once-over before leading you through bunk-strewn barracks to the main performance area. Designer Katherine Heath hasn't scrimped on detail- ultimately it is the set design and seating layout (which is scattered around the performance space) that lends an innate sense of immersion.
I shan't mince my words: it is bloody long. A cushion, refreshments, and a hefty attention span are most definitely required for a play that lasts two and a half hours (not including the interval), but then, this is Shakespeare, so we should thank our lucky stars we're not standing in the mud in a circular straw hut for four hours. The pacing does leave a little to be desired however- the blame for which can hardly be attributed entirely to director Roland Smith- but while the moments of action swept the audience up in a flurry of sound and emotion, some of the more staid dialogue became stagnant and trying, made all the more frustrating by Smith's excellent direction elsewhere in dialogue-heavy moments.
The decision to set Henry V in the Falklands War also had its pros and cons: at its best, the grittiness of modern warfare enabled the audience to relate to the story far better than we are able to relate to anything doused in 15th Century oddities. At it's worst, however, the fleeting flirtation with ska music and skinhead culture was a little insubstantial and jarring against such classical narrative.
The stellar cast contribute a great deal to keeping the audience riveted from start to finish: Philip Desmeules' Henry is charming, persuasive, aggressive, but too wiry and wide-eyed to ever be unsympathetically threatening. Liam Smith dazzles as both Pistol and Charles VI (and is barely recognisable from one role to the next), he wields his physicality like an on-stage weapon: a bile-spitting Pistol with a Praying Mantis-esque gait one moment, a restrained and loftily sneering French King the next. A brilliant comedic turn from Laura Martin-Simpson as Katherine in the second half adds a spirited lightness to proceedings, and yet more stunningly transformative talents.
Henry V is precisely what immersive theatre should be: painfully visceral, palpably arresting and undeniably touching. It's intentions, cast and design are all commendable enough to forgive and forget a few questionable theatrical choices... and a numb bum.
Henry V is at 35 Marylebone High Street until 30 June. Tickets £16, £10 concessions. http://theatre-delicatessen.makemoredigital.com