by William Shakspeare
Directed by Michael Grandage,
Noel Coward Theatre, London
Henry V presents different acting challenges to the other histories. Henry V is and was an English national hero, and was unequivocally so in 1599. The weight of historical importance was reinforced by Olivier’s wartime production; part of the war effort, as well as being Olivier’s best Shakespearean role on film. The casting of a genuine Hollywood star this time in Jude Law is absolutely right, and in Law they have a “proper” Shakespearean actor too. We saw his Hamlet, also directed by Grandage in the Donmar West End season, and his Faustus at the Young Vic. Law, like Patrick Stewart, is the real thing in acting terms, but like Stewart, the fact that he has a handsome and internationally recognizable face adds a charismatic sheen to the role of a great national hero.
Jude Law also has just the right sense of laddishness for the role. Prince Hal has been a bit of a lad through Henry IV Parts I and II, and has now had the mantle of authority and responsibility placed upon him. Law brings out Henry as the trickster. The trickster role happens twice in the play. First is at Southampton dock, when Henry confronts the three nobles who have been conspiring against him. He asks them how he should punish a miscreant, and whether he should be merciful. They advise him to eschew mercy … whereupon he reveals that he knows about their treason. Then there’s the scenes with the soldier the night before the Battle of Agincourt. Henry gets into a quarrel with him, and they exchange gloves as a sign that they will sort each other out after the battle. Henry gives the glove to the Welsh captain, Fluellen. These scenes need a sense of humour and cunning.
The great speeches, Once more unto the breach … at the siege of Harfleur, and the Agincourt speech are given the respect they deserve as lines that have resonated through English history. But Law emphasizes the ‘one of the lads’ role … think of all those TV news scenes of Henry V’s namesake and descendant, our current Prince Harry sharing a tent in Afghanistan. Law does the speech with his men circled around him, and at the end, for ‘band of brothers’ they all put their arms round each other’s shoulders, like a sports team before a match, or like a band taking bows at the end of a rock concert. Law’s Agincourt speech, almost a Churchillian quotation now, was for the first time genuinely stirring for both of us.
The construction of the play means that after the great battle (we won in case you’re wondering), Henry is plunged straight into a long and wonderful romantic comedy scene wooing Katherine of France. Again, Law has the star charisma as well as the acting ability to stay a laddish soldier, and pull off romance and comedy. Having a perfectly lovely Katherine (Jessie Buckley) responding helps! You expect the sudden modern interpretation of a line in Shakespeare, but rarely one so brilliantly done as the end of the wooing scene:
You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is
more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the
tongues of the French council; and they should
sooner persuade Harry of England than a general
petition of monarchs. Here comes your father,
The last sentence is done fast and conspiratorial as pure lad. Great stuff. So far then, all I’ve mentioned is Law and his performance, which figures. The Grandage season is based on central starring roles with famous actors. Law is the most rounded and convincing Henry I’ve seen (including films). The cast Grandage has assembled around him are excellent in every respect. A small example. Take that wooing scene. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off Jude Law & Jessie Buckley, but a sideways glance reveals hilarious facial reactions from the embarrassed Alice (Noma Dumezweni), who is watching and interpreting.
The production takes the “Wooden O” theme with a semi-circular grey surround, that can revolve and close, open to reveal a starry sky the night before the battle, or be closed and have an inner stage at the back, or doors at the side. Banners are lowered for the French court. Parts of the stage open to show burning camp fires for the soldiers to huddle around before the battle. It’s fluid and flexible. The Agincourt night setting is beautifully evocative. The soldiers look filthy and exhausted. The dirty cross of St. George banners are tattered and torn. Dysentery and infection killed more medieval soldiers than action, and the play emphasizes that the English army were diseased, sick, exhausted. Those paintings of medieval battles show archers naked from the waist down. I thought it was the taste of the painters, but apparently soldiers with dysentery would dispense with trousers.
The lighting plot changes scenes for us. It’s dark and golden for the interior of Mistress Quickly’s tavern, daylight for the docks at Southampton, warmer for the French court, startlingly bright for Katherine and Alice, smoky and murky for battle scenes. Best lighting of the year? Though in the tavern, I thought it was just a tad too dark on actor’s faces.
The battles are great. No thesping about clashing swords. It’s all done at a run from side entrance to side exit, to battle sounds; explosive sounds at the siege of Harfleur. It works. It’s economic. The play is heavily but astutely cut (like Grandage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) so much so that he even cuts the last two lines of the chorus at the end … finding a better ending as a result.
The chorus is an important part of the play, done by Ashley Zhangazha (see Fences review). While the cast are costumed for 1415, the chorus wears jeans and a British flag T-shirt with backpack. He slips into roles, as messengers, boys or whatever, still in modern dress. He gives us the distance in the prologue speech … that we have to imagine the scenes of battle and mayhem, and so the chorus must be outside the play. I wondered briefly about the British flag. At the start, planning the war on France, they worry that ‘the weasel Scot’ will attack England in their absence. Shakespeare was at pains with Fluellen (Wales) and MacMorris (Ireland) to show the then (1599) united kingdom, which did not include Scotland. I also wondered if those lines about the Scots stayed in productions of the play four years after it was written, when the Scottish James acended to the throne. On balance, the British flag was right, because the chorus is “now” and “now” the English flag has sadly gained far right connotations.
Henry V is a thought-provoking play, and the construction allows a lot of comedy and light relief interspersed with the heroism. It was written close to Hamlet too. The common soldier scenes are interspersed with the nobility scenes. Then the scene of the cowardly Pistol (Ron Cook) threatening the French captive to extract a ransom comes hard on the heels of that heroic Agincourt speech. Pistol is played as a little bantam of a man in plumed hat and faded finery. The play also shows that jokes with ‘There was an Englishman, a Welshman and an Irishman, …’ have long history. Shakespeare assigns Fluellen, the Welshman, the verbal tic of ‘Look you …’ to show his Welshness, something sitcom writers are still doing more than four hundred years later.
The play has a lot to say about war for today. Henry is anguished from his very first speech about the human consequences of pressing his case:
Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war:
We charge you, in the name of God, take heed;
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint
‘Gainst him whose wrong gives edge unto the swords
Did you read that, Tony Blair? Like Blair, Henry V invokes the deity frequently, hard to do in 2013 terms, but Law does it with unforced naturalness.
Julius Caesar was written only a year or so later with Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Part of Henry’s dilemma is in knowing he is leading men to their deaths, and how to deal with the morality of war. The historic Battle of Agincourt saw Welsh archers destroy the nobility of France, with the much larger French army suffering a huge death toll (exaggerated proportionally by Shakespeare) due to the efficiency of Welsh longbows … simpler technology than a crossbow, but requiring years of practice and training. ‘Not fair!’ cried the flower of French chivalry as they were dispatched with knives on the ground unable to get up in their heavy armour. Shakespeare also has the short scene of the French murdering the English ‘boys’ who are presumably the camp followers, cooks, grooms etc. Henry’s response is to order his men to kill their prisoners. The modern resonance is the British sergeant who shot a captive in Afghanistan in cold blood, and was found guilty of murder. In his defence, it was reported that the other side were taking no prisoners, and the body parts of his recently killed colleagues had been found hanging up. When you cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, atrocities are surely inevitable, and responsibility truly does belong to those ‘whose wrong gives an edge unto the swords’. There is a scene late where Pistol hears that his wife Mistress Quickly has died of venereal disease. In the actual line, it’s ‘the French malady’ (syphilis) and we hear it just after the French have been defeated. How’s that for irony?
Henry & Katherine
Henry V is a favourite play, and with Richard III, stands head and shoulders above all those other ‘Enerys. It’s partly a favourite because I did A level English Lit in the days when you did a comedy, a tragedy and a history in the Shakespeare paper, and Henry V was the chosen one. Our teacher was a retired headmaster, drafted in at the last minute when our prospective English teacher was killed in a car crash just before the start of term. Mr Curtis was an old-fashioned headmaster, but he knew his Elizabethan theatre history thoroughly and all the plays too, so, as with Hamlet (the set tragedy), I have the rare relief of understanding every single line and reference except one. Mr Curtis never explained the misunderstanding over ‘gown’ in the Katherine of France / Alice English teaching scene:
Katherine: Comment appelez-vous le pied et la robe?
Alice: De foot, madame; et de coun.
Her misunderstanding was crystal clear in this production, and Katherine makes it crystal clear in the play:
Katherine: De foot et de coun! O Seigneur Dieu! ce sont mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d’honneur d’user:
Let’s be charitable and say that Mr Curtis’s French was too weak, rather than that he had failed to draw out the text sufficiently. After all, I still remember how purple his face went when he explained “country matters” in Hamlet. We did discuss at length (he loved historical digressions) though the extreme unlikelihood of Henry V being unable to speak French, as virtually half his domains were in France, and the English and French royal families were intertwined. Earlier English kings would have spoken French anyway. We date modern English from Chaucer, who died fifteen years before the action in the play, but Chaucerian English has a significantly higher percentage of French derivations than English today. We used to do the scene in our weekly shows for EFL students. We normally did sketches and songs, but once a month we had to do a costumed acted reading of “real” plays because the programme advertised it, and once a year we had to do an evening of Shakespeare extracts because it was in the school brochure. Pyramus & Thisbe works at any language level, as we discovered, and we hammed up the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene breaking it into West Side Story halfway. The Katherine / Henry scene was always mortifying for Karen (playing Katherine) because of speaking so much French in front of 400 students, at least fifty of whom would be French native speakers. It’s OK being Henry because however rough your pronunciation is, it only adds to the humour!
This is turning into a long review and I haven’t criticized ANYTHING yet. Let’s try. In the tavern scene, I didn’t like the blocking of the characters standing in a semi-circle almost like a tableau (and the atmospheric lighting concealed too much). Tableaux are used effectively elsewhere, especially at the ‘frozen’ end of the play, but this setting was too static for comedy. My companion thought the costume superb except for the cloak Henry borrows as a disguise for the campfire scene. She thought it too short and inelegant compared to the longer cloaks elsewhere. And in the Agincourt speech, the men around him in a near circle looked great, but they should be in a semi-circle rather than a three-quarter circle. From our angle, the tallest listening soldier was totally blocking our view of Henry for the first 20% of the speech … I’d say blocking for 20% of the stalls at least. Phew! Got that off my chest.
And so to the end of the year of five plays in the Grandage season. We got our ticket for this Henry V over a year ago. Four out of five plays were as good as you get. The fifth, the dull and tedious Peter & Alice must have looked good as a concept, before it was actually written. I feel a sense of a gap as no Grandage season has been announced for 2014. Let’s cross fingers and hope for 2015