Black Mirror actress Maggie Bain goes into the breach as Henry V in York’s glorious summer
But in a period Shakespearean arena as close as can be to the 16th century original, the unveiling yesterday of Maggie Bain as the young king was not what the critics had expected.
However, confounding expectations for the better has worked well so far for those behind the recreation of the Globe Theatre in the shadow of York’s Clifford’s Tower.
Last summer’s cycle of four plays was so successful that it is being repeated twice this year, with an additional venue at the Duke of Marlborough’s Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Henry V will rotate with Hamlet, The Tempest and Twelfth Night at the temporary scaffold-and-canvas theatre in York, when the curtain goes up on June 25.
Some 5,000 actors applied to be auditioned this year – a far cry from 12 months ago, when the producers had to explain to agents what they were doing.
“It was harder but also easier this time,” said James Cundall, the Yorkshire impresario who conceived the idea. “We got national reviews last year – we acquired a reputation.
“We really do feel now that we’ve got the cream because we just saw so many people.”
But the casting of a young Henry remained a challenge, said the play’s director, Gemma Fairlie, as rehearsals began yesterday.
“We auditioned a huge range of actors of all genders for this role, but no-one quite captured the complexity of the character like Maggie,” she said.
“Henry is such an iconic figure for the English, he is sometimes more myth than man. But we have to understand why thousands followed him into battle, whilst also seeing the weight of that responsibility for the nation on his shoulders.”
Ms Bain, who was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe and, in complete contrast, in the futuristic Netflix thriller, Black Mirror, possessed Henry’s wit, charm and charisma in “infectious” measure, Ms Fairlie said.
“I know that the audience will fall in love with Henry through her, while hopefully questioning how constructed the public persona of a King is by seeing a woman play a man.”
The programme of twice-daily performances in York includes several aimed at schools, but Mr Cundall said he was not trying to preach gender politics to them.
“I’m not waving the flag – I’m just producing the very best entertainment I can,” he said.
“If it alters people’s own thinking, that’s secondary and the most wonderful by-product, but I wouldn’t be so presumptive to try and do that.”
A Scarborough native, he runs Lunchbox Productions, which stages large scale shows around the word, including this year, Shakespeare in Manilla. His ancestor, the actor Henry Condell, was instrumental in editing the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, in 1623.
“I suspect that we are the biggest Shakespearean company in the world at the moment, for a fleeting time in history,” he said.
He was approached by Blenheim Palace to do for its tourist market this summer what he had done in York last year. A repeat engagement in York itself was already in hand.
Last year’s four plays, two of them new productions, will now go to Oxfordshire, where an identical, 13-sided theatre is being built next to the palace.
The construction is “unique and intimate”, said Damian Cruden, the overall artistic director. “From our company of 34 actors last season, 14 have returned,” he said. “We all so enjoyed the experience of performing in such a venue.”