By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 19th September 2015, 13.15
The RSC Henry V is part of the Gregory Doran-directed tetralogy, following on from Richard II. After the Stratford run you’ll be able to see all four together in London, though for me it started two years ago with Richard II, and I saw Henry IV Parts 1 and II in April 2014, so the sense of continuity is weak. The eventual aim of running the four together dictates casting … the same cast obviously. More importantly, Henry V functions differently as part four of a series. The same is true of Richard III … when you see Richard III right after Henry VI Part III, the character is dictated by his brutal role in Henry VI as Gloucester. In Henry V, we have the transition from Prince Hal of Henry IV Parts 1 and II to glorious leader and war hero – Henry V was an extremely popular figure in 1599.
The programme notes the issue – 1599 was a year of bitter and futile wars in Ireland, with men forced into service. Over the years you can focus Henry V on patriotism … Once more unto the breach … and the Agincourt speech, or you can play up the rabble forming the army. Both will always be there. The wartime Olivier film was squarely on the side of patriotism, and so was Michael Grandage’s 2013 production with Jude Law as Henry. Jude Law was genuinely stirring, lump in the throat, proud to be British stuff.
The programme notes by Jeremy Paxman are prescient. He reminds us of George Orwell’s 1945 quote that an intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing for the national anthem than stealing from the poor box. We’re seeing this production in the week that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declined to sing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain commemoration, and became flustered and refused to answer when told on the BBC News that he might have to kneel before the Queen to become a Privy Councillor. I’m not accusing him of stealing from the poor box though. But the middle and rich boxes need watching .
Alex Hassell as Henry V
Three of us went, and we all concluded immediately afterwards that this production failed on both Once more unto the breach speech at Harfleur… and on the Agincourt speech (Act IV Scene 3). The first was a lone Henry, dashing about breaking the speech up so it lost all impact. They threw it away. The RSC may have been premature in ordering those Once more unto the breach … and Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St. George!’ red and white T-shirts for the shop. Much as one might like the sentiment, printing the first in red on white is too much like a replica England football shirt. Wrong kind of patriotism. The Agincourt speech just lacked power.
Where Alex Hassell scored in the big speeches was in a different place, the very end of Act IV, the list containing What is the number of our English dead? which he took magnificently, and we’d swear, sitting at the front, that tears ran down his face. So I would argue that they shifted emphasis from Jude Law’s 2013 hero (fabulous on both patriotic speeches) to a late 2015 results of war summing up. This is the issue. Henry V can be the true hero as a stand-alone play. Alex Hassell has to carry over being Prince Hal into the part. As one of our party said afterwards, ‘Great Prince Hal, unconvincing King Henry.’ Part of it was that Jude Law’s Henry had a considerable army around him, in 1415 garb. Hassell’s Henry is still establishing his regality well into the play, and probably only succeeds by the last Act IV speech.
Here costume was a tatty grab-bag of medieval, 18th century piratical meets Hell’s Angel (Pistol, Nym, Bardolph), bits of armour, World War 1 (gas capes and gaiters and helmets) then 12th century crusader white tabards with a red cross … it wasn’t a crusade. While King Henry V had impressive smart costume, it did not imply the regality of Olivier, Branagh or Law’s quartered French fleurs-du-lys and gold on red English lions. They did usefully maintain dusty red for the English nobles (mainly) and dusty blue for the French, with the three traitors at Southampton in grey.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s documents which support Henry’s claim to France and so justify the war would be uncomfortable viewing for Tony Blair and his 2003 cabinet.
Oliver Ford Davies is simply the best chorus I’ve seen. As in the 2013 Grandage, the chorus is in modern dress … an elderly man with cardie and scarf (2013 was a young lad in a T-shirt, who also got mixed up in the action). It’s an important role, constantly intervening to expand our imagination. Legend has it that Shakespeare played the chorus at the opening of The Globe. Oliver Ford Davies brings meaning to every word of every line, with authority and intensity and humour.
There are three bits of direction that I’ve neither seen nor imagined before. One physical, two on lines that got loud laughs, and no, one wasn’t ‘the count’ in the Alice-Katherine English teaching scene, which was pointed by reactions, but not over-stressed. No plot spoilers. If you can’t get to Stratford, it will be in cinemas as RSC Live eventually. The physical one was great timing.
The common soldier …
Pistol (Joshua Richards)
As well as the dress anachronisms, Pistol was hung with pistols. All the Pistol, Nym, Bardolph scenes were played strongly and got the laughs. they avoided the feeling of forced jokes that can creep in.
Englishman, Irishman, a Scotsman and A Welshman …
Fluellen is Shakespeare’s verbose Welshman, look you. As often mentioned here, I believe The King’s Men had a good Welsh comic actor or a comic actor who specialized in Welsh accents. The jokes start here with the four officers. Much fun is had with Fluellen’s substitution of P for B, which is how it’s written in my old Signet Classic edition (porn in Monmouth). Captain Macmorris, the Irishman is hung with grenades, which get dropped and tossed about to hilarious effect. As we’d had a sudden explosion earlier, I expected him to throw one away at the end of the scene and another explosion, but they missed that pantomime classic. Captain Jamy, the Scot, is kilted (accurately, I think, in a dull green barely discernible tartan) and the joke is that he is completely utterly incomprehensible … deliberately … Fluellen and Macmorris stare open-mouthed at him. It’s like trying to explain a problem to a SKY TV call centre in Scotland. It is very funny indeed. In 1599, Shakespeare’s placing of a Scot comes four years before the ascension of James IV of Scotland to the English throne, so would be a foreigner, a mercenary. I don’t know, was this a possible addition or correction after the initial run of the play?
Katherine of France (Jennifer Kirby)
A funny Dauphin (Robert Gilbert) as expected. The hair style helps. There is a delightful twist on the delivery of the tennis balls to Henry which I will not reveal.
The Katherine and Alice scenes are favourites. They ignored the text which makes Alice “an elderly gentlewoman” teaching the princess English, and made her equally young, with an additional gentlewoman in the scenes. Jennifer Kirby plays a lively, young Katherine, skipping around, giggling with her women. The wooing scene at the end has excellent work by Alex Hassell and Jennifer Kirby. He does this especially well, but it is more of a Prince Hal scene than a King Henry scene.
I always wonder how much French Shakespeare expected the audience to understand. Perhaps that was for the galleries rather than the Pit. This Henry’s French pronunciation was SO English he sounded like me in French. It’s an integral question about the play. With Henry V’s ancestry, his claims to the French throne and his extensive French lands, it’s Shakespeare’s invention to have him not speaking French. In 1415, his French would surely have been as good, if not better than his English. But I’m pleased we have this two scenes. They never fail.
Henry V again. It is the title of the play.
I missed the extra soldiers … but of course, the chorus is the device that should render an army unnecessary. The stage had a transparent surface, sometimes looking solid, others red-lit below or silver-lit below. Projection was used … a silvery cathedral for England, a gold one for France. Panels dropped, the backdrop was mobile. House lights stayed on for the chorus speech, and the front rows remained lit by spill-over light throughout. Music, sound, lighting were the expected exemplary RSC standard.
I’m usually more generous than the major newspapers, but …
I’d say 3.5 stars, 4 in comic bits.
SEE ALSO OTHER PLAYS IN THE SET OF FOUR:
Richard II, with David Tennant as Richard II, directed by Gregory Doran
Henry IV Parts 1 & II, with Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, directed by Gregory Doran
Henry V, directed by Michael Grandage, with Jude Law as Henry V, 2013