I don’t suppose there are any records anywhere (how could there be?) but I wouldn’t bet against the idea that Henry V is probably the most performed of Shakespeare’s history plays. Once called upon to rouse the nation to valiant action (Laurence Olivier’s film version in the 1940s) it has, of late, been used to carry an anti-war message showing the futility and the destruction which it causes. Director of this 2015 production, Greg Doran, nailed his own colours to the mast when he stated “the play is not anti- or pro- war but a play which explores the many aspects of war”.
So, the clear intention was to steer a middle course and I think this gives the production a bit of a problem. By trying to be all things to all men it is danger of pleasing nobody. It does seem that it is a play which cries out for a position to be taken but as it was originally premiering in the 600th anniversary year of the Battle of Agincourt either totally decrying or celebrating this particular event was probably not deemed a sensible approach. That said it is a solidly mounted production which doesn’t pull its punches in dealing with the horrors of war but which also gives due recognition to the less serious sides of the drama. Playing at Stratford-upon-Avon the year following Doran’s Henry IV duo of plays, the production shares the majority of the same cast with the same director, designer and technical team.
Not particularly enamoured of Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in the first of these, I noted that he had grown in stature throughout the second and by this play it seems that he has fully realised his characterisation and acts strongly throughout. Like Hamlet, it is one of those roles that it is difficult to reinvent simply because of the number of quotable lines which everyone knows and can lie there like booby traps for the unsuspecting actor. Hassell, however, avoids cliché and generally makes the oft quoted lines seem fresh minted. The set speeches of stirring rhetoric are well handled and the actor shows a good sense for comedy in the wooing scene with Jennifer Kirby as a spiky Princess Katherine. This has, then, like Hal’s evolving position in the trilogy, been a performance that has steadily taken on more weight and become one to savour.
Once again there is a strong and supportive company of actors with notable appearances by Jim Hooper as a manipulative Archbishop, Jane Laportaire (in an all too brief appearance) as a passionate Queen Isobel, Robert Gilbert as a preening Dauphin and Simon Yadoo as a comically incomprehensible Captain Jamy. Joshua Richards continues his good work as Bardolph before picking up the challenge of Welsh windbag Fluellen – a great interpretation. Antony Byrne seems to have toned things down as the irrepressible Pistol; he’s certainly had a haircut! The most notable innovation is Oliver Ford Davies as the play’s Chorus. He plays the part as a becardiganed professor guiding us through the intricacies of the English claim to the French crown and the subsequent invasion of France culminating in the Battle of Agincourt. Nowhere is the dialogue crisper and clearer than in this actor’s capable hands.
There were points at which I felt there needed to be more of a sense of huge armies colliding – simply having a few more bodies onstage might have helped though budgetary considerations probably precluded this. The whole business with disguises and exchanged gloves also gets a little tedious and makes one question whether the King has altogether abandoned his old japes. I’ve always felt that this seems incongruous in the setting of a bloody battlefield just as the dead are being enumerated. I could also learn to live without the whole Pistol/Fluellen and the leeks situation. However, the intention clearly being to give as full account of Shakespeare’s original as possible, I suppose cutting some of this was never going to happen.
I’ve had an interesting three days following the overarching plotline of this trilogy of plays which have showed the RSC at its strength. Though it will probably be some while before I want to watch Henry V again, renewing my acquaintance with it has confirmed why it is so frequently the history of choice . The broad sweep of its canvas makes it so much more than just a series of medieval battles and it does show Shakespeare at the top of his game – “the brightest heaven of invention”, indeed.
Production photos by Keith Pattison
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