Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
In 1415 a rag-tag army of Englishmen were retreating through France. After a tougher than expected siege of Harfleur and an outbreak of dysentery, their plans of conquest lay in tatters. On 25th October, St Crispin’s Day, they met a French army near the castle of Agincourt. Outnumbered by the fresher French forces, the English stood their ground and won a victory that has resounded down the ages (largely thanks to Shakespeare). The English king eventually married the French princess, a legend was born and a new golden age seemed to be in the offing. As it turned out, Henry’s early death called time on the golden age before it got going and cost his country not only France but its internal peace as well, as the Wars of the Roses destroyed his successors.
So in Henry V Shakespeare captures an England full of hope between the years of treason and rebellion which marked the reigns of Henry IV and Henry VI. It is full of instantly recognizable patriotic scenes such as the St Crispin’s Day and the ‘once more unto the breach’ speeches, but it also occasionally expresses a darker side to Henry’s rule. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s slippery justifications for the invasion, Henry’s doubts before the big battle and his often quite unlikable hypocrisy are all troubling aspects. Henry doesn’t seem to care about the death of his old friend Falstaff and he executes old cronies Nym and Bardolph. There is lots of thanking god, but how much is it a public act? He’s a careful politician, so outward religiosity for the sake of morale would not be surprising. And Henry even admits his own illegitimate right to rule, thanks to his father’s treason against Richard II: ‘Think not upon the fault my father did…’ However, the context of that admission is important. On the eve of battle, all alone, Henry prays to god for his men’s safety. And there is enough elsewhere in the play to overcome any doubts about Henry’s character. Much of our scepticism comes from modern sensibilities perhaps alien to the original audience. Are we perhaps too sentimental in wishing Henry would save Nym and Bardolph? Or should we embrace a ruler who exercises justice without favouritism? The characters in the play are unequivocal: Henry is a great and well-loved king.
In terms of this production, the stage set is immediately both simple and striking. At the beginning, the backdrop is entirely removed and the backstage area creates extra space. During the play, the backdrop occasionally appears, via a clever guillotine device, during intimate moments (or to create Harfleur’s walls). The stage’s floor bears an interesting pattern which, during the great battle, is revealed as an invisible Perspex layer above a textured muddy field. This is nicely done. It was also nice to see a few of the cast from last year’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in minor roles. Having now seen a few RSC plays, the return of actors from earlier productions allows one to appreciate the actors’ impressive versatility. I suspect some of them will one day be well known.
The most recognizable face is Oliver Ford Davies’, who plays the chorus. He got the play rolling with his entry from the backstage area looking for like an elderly and befuddled audience member who had taken a wrong turn. This effect is probably calculated and he got an early laugh when he curiously picked up Henry’s crown only to have Henry stride out and snatch it away from him. Although the main cast wear medieval dress, Ford Davies is bedecked in brown corduroys and a blue cardigan. He is intentionally distanced from the rest of the cast but it doesn’t really work. Admittedly, the chorus must be a difficult part for a modern director to pull off and Shakespeare himself wasn’t exactly keen on them. Its origin is ancient and tragic, and its use in Henry V was perhaps intended to burnish the play’s epic quality. But epic patriotism isn’t really the done thing for the modern intelligentsia. Ford Davies has the odd stab at it (this is the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, so this production has to be at least partly celebratory), but at times he is ironic rather than patriotic and at others he is earnest but over the top. As I’ve indicated earlier, the text at times questions the legitimacy of Henry’s exploits, but it is done with much more subtlety than Ford Davies musters here, veering erratically between over-gesticulating jingoism and sardonic scepticism.
Joshua Richards’ Fluellan is hilarious as the warm but garrulous old Welshman and Jennifer Kirby as Katewas also excellent. Both funny and beautiful, she balances chastity and eager curiosity with great comic timing. In fact, the humour is deftly handled throughout this performance. It was also good to see Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel of France. She’s had some health problems but is now back on the stage, even if the role was smaller than some she’s had in the past.
Alex Hassell is a handsome and august Henry, but perhaps not quite tough enough and for much of the play not quite down to earth enough. He also has a slightly annoying tendency to address the audience instead of his fellow characters. Presumably the director asked him to do this, and perhaps the aim is to tie the audience more closely to the action. If so, the effort is wasted.
The St Crispin’s Day speech should be the climax of the play:
‘From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’
Here it is the biggest disappointment, desperate rather than inspiring. The tone is flat and the result is anti-climactic. The courage of the men is undercut by an attempt at comedy as Pistol almost takes up the offer to go home, and the end of the speech is followed straightaway, almost before Henry had finished speaking, by the announcement of a messenger’s arrival. No cheering, no signs of grim purpose, no response at all from the army. Again, the director was afraid to appear too patriotic. Henry is much better after the wars, and the wooing scene with Katherine is delightful. Even if flawed in places, Hassell’s performance contains enough to convince me that he is a fine actor, surely due a breakout role in the near future if he turns his sights on television or film.
Overall, this production has a few blemishes and compares unfavourably to the year’s best Stratford performances: Volpone and The Jew of Malta. But a comparison with those great productions is unduly harsh. For all its faults, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work, with a number of standout performances.