Nicholas Asbury's Guardian Blog: Henry V Conquers Spain

Read Nicholas Asbury's blogs as Propeller tour the UK and the world with Henry V and The Winter's Tale. Click here to find out more.

Read Nicholas Asbury's blogs as Propeller tour the UK and the world with Henry V and The Winter's Tale. Click here to find out more.

A red and white flag of St. George hangs limply on its pole, as we seek to explore some of the themes of English nationalism in Henry V. The thin red stripe is the only dash of colour in an otherwise monochrome set, until the green camouflage of our costumes, and the blood from England’s passage through France seeps inexorably through our play.

Yes, the English abroad have always had a somewhat chequered history, but this week Propellor have come to the Festival of Girona, in Catalonia, to give our account of one particularly famous sortie from Blighty.

The guy greeting us at Barcelona airport had a sign that said simply ‘Henry V.’ I’m not sure that would have happened had we just arrived in France. Still, the lovely frisson of expectation and nervousness - just like doing a show - that thrills you on arriving in a foreign country was in full flow as we sped past the palm trees on the motorway to this old city of Girona.

The theatre is as beautiful as any I have ever seen. Built as an opera house, the stalls spread back to a perfect tongue of boxes, five stories high, that circle the seats below. On the ceiling, gilded paintings shimmer in the lights which frame the stage in  perfect symmetry. It is an epic stage, fit for an epic play.

We did a Dress Rehearsal, so that the Spanish subtitle guy could learn the timing of the lines, and then we roared through the sold out show in the evening- it made a bit of a change from having been in a half empty theatre in Milton Keynes the week before. There were people queuing round the block for this one. Here, with the exchange of languages, the slightest physical gesture stills the theatre or makes it erupt into laughter. Each speech or set piece is listened to intently – you can almost hear the audience paying attention. Because of the simultaneous translation, the jokes are very often received in silence, but then get a laugh about 5 seconds later. Here in the land of Rafa Nadal, they loved the whole tennis balls thing that happens in the play, and when we sang to them in the foyer during the interval (we don’t stop in this play), they joined in enthusiastically. But it was the curtain call that floored most of us, as we were called back on to the stage to take a bow no less than seven times. On the last three calls, they stood as one and roared.

As English actors we are utterly unused to such adulation. A quick reserved bit of applause, prolonged to a couple of curtain calls if they liked it, will usually do for the English. It keeps you on your toes – stops you getting lazy and all that. Here in Girona, they must have been clapping for at least five minutes – standing, cheering, roaring. It was very humbling, heartwarming and absolutely bloody marvellous.

Apart from nearly getting arrested, the following show went very well. I was standing outside the theatre dressed in camouflage trousers, wearing a balaclava as I normally do before the show. It’s a provocative start, but gives a balance of menace and anonymity that we want to bring as a group of ‘soldiers’ performing Henry V. The night before, a policeman had been on guard to watch the queue entering the theatre, and he had smiled at me, knowing it was part of the show. This time however it was a different guy. I nodded and smiled as before. Next thing I knew he had walled me up, torn my balaclava from my head, and started to frisk me, ignoring my protestations of innocence (“I’m an actor – not the face”). Between the Company Manager and myself, we managed to persuade him not to throw me in the cells, and he turned his back on us saying in very obvious disdain that actors should be in the theatre, not outside. So much for breaking the fourth wall.

Talking of walls, Girona has some of the finest medieval ones in the world and before the show I went for a walk on them as they tower over the city. From there, you can see the  billowing mountains of the Montseny Massif leading to the snow-tipped Pyrenees in the distance. The sun began to dip below them, and the white stone of the Cathedral which peers over the old streets and alleyways turned blood red, mirroring the flag of St. George that hangs so limply on our stage.

In the land of Catalonia that has seen so much bloodshed in a struggle with oppression, had its own balaclava’d terrorism, it was clear to see that a play imbued ostensibly with so much English nationalistic fervour could translate and speak to so many. The language of red and white, blood and bone, sadly spans the world.

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