Tag Archives: Henry V

The Conscience of the King

HENRY V

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 1st October, 2015

 

Gregory Doran’s new production takes its lead from the Chorus, who draws our attention to the limitations of theatrical presentations and pleads with us to use our imaginations – in fact, Oliver Ford Davies yells at us, urging us to work, as though he is a gruff old academic and us his dull students.  It makes for the most amusing Chorus I have seen, and it’s easy to imagine Ford Davies as the beloved terror of a university or a curmudgeonly presenter of a historical series on BBC 4.

Doran brings out a great deal of humour and there is no limit to his theatrical presentation!  The play seems well-served by this approach.  Jim Hooper’s Archbishop of Canterbury who has acres of exposition to deliver in hereby transformed into a delight.

The marvellous Alex Hassell’s Henry is very much a new king, finding his way and taking on board the counsel of his advisors.  He sits on the throne with his legs wide apart, consciously asserting his presence, like a selfish commuter ‘man-spreading’ on the Tube.  He is a thoughtful, sensitive Henry, a man of conscience and a fast learner.  At first, Hassell gives him a haughty, pompous tone as though Henry only uses his telephone voice but as the king becomes more accustomed to his position, he grows more natural, without losing status.  By the time we get to the Crispin’s Day speech he is indeed the war-like Harry – the delivery is both rousing and heartfelt.

There is comic support from the likes of Christopher Middleton’s Nym and Antony Byrne’s Pistol – this latter, especially, rounds out his characterisation beyond the physicality of the comic business.  There’s a Welshman, an Irishman bristling with mad hair and grenades, and a Scotsman – fun with stereotypes!  Simon Yadoo’s Scottish Jamy is hilariously unintelligible.  Joshua Richards’s Welshman Fluellen is more even-tempered, look you.  The funniest scenes involve Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) trying to learn English from her lady-in-waiting (Leigh Dunn); and Robert Gilbert is a hoot as the effeminate Dauphin, complete with pageboy bob.

But it’s not all laughs, larks and leeks.  Far from it.  Tensions and drama keep the plot going, linked by the Chorus’s narration: when Henry receives news of the execution of former drinking buddy Bardolph (Joshua Richards again) he has to govern his emotions and temper his response in accordance with his role as monarch.  And earlier, the reporting of the death of Falstaff is touchingly done by Sarah Parks’s Mistress Quickly.

There’s a happy ending: wooing Katherine, Henry is out of his depth.  His prowess in war cannot help him now.  Hassell has always excelled at comedy and leaves us on a high.  We come away with the feeling that Henry must have been a good king, (albeit a short-lived one) and we have been royally entertained by a refreshing, rollicking take on a well-worn history.

Royal Shakespeare Company production of HENRY V by William Shakespeare directed by Gregory Doran

Royal Shakespeare Company production of
HENRY V
by William Shakespeare
directed by Gregory Doran Photo: Keith Pattison

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A Little Touch of Harry in the Night

HENRY V
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 2nd May, 2012

The mighty Propeller theatre company’s The Winter’s Tale delighted and entertained me a few months ago and so I was really looking forward to seeing the other half of their currently touring double bill.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The cast forms a company of soldiers, a band of brothers. Through the “O, for a muse of fire!” opening speech, they take it in turns to appeal to our imaginations to provide all the scenery, cast of thousands and special effects they are unable to bring onto the stage. From the get-go, Shakespeare’s brilliance gets to work. This speech is full of false modesty but it is also a direct lesson in how Narrative Theatre works. The play is crammed with familiar lines but to appreciate the full power of the language you have to hear the rhetoric in context.

Director Edward Hall gives Shakespeare room to work on us. This is a war story showing not just the high and mighty, but also the common men from all walks of life. The clever use of The Clash’s London Calling during one of the transitions brings this to the fore. Actors double and treble up on characters and are chorus to each other’s history, hardly ever leaving the stage. They are a tight and talented ensemble. Humour, Shakespeare’s and Hall’s, counterpoints the darker scenes. The Dauphin (Gunnar Cauthery) gives us a quick burst of the theme from ‘Allo, ‘Allo! on the accordion to play the French King onto the stage. As French Princess Katherine, Karl Davies (it’s an all-male company) is hilarious without being outré. Contrast this with his earlier experience as the traitor Lord Scroop and you have a prime example of what this production does best. Light and dark are each thrown into sharp relief.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry is more effective in the dramatic scenes than the comic ones, giving the men that most famous of pep talks or expressing his heartbreak over the treachery of his closest friends. Henry is Shakespeare’s ideal leader – defeating the enemy, “down” with the common folk and he gets the girl. The only thing he doesn’t do is croon like Barack Obama.

I also particularly liked Chris Myles as Katherine’s gentlewoman/chaperone but it’s unfair to single out performances from this happy few.

The play ends with the marriage of Henry to Katherine, uniting England to old enemy France. But this is a surprisingly downbeat moment. In silence, Henry hands the kneeling Katherine his crown and walks away. It is as though all he has fought for is surrendered. This has resonances with Europe today. We won the war (in case you were unaware!) but we are perhaps in danger of yielding too much power to our continental neighbours. Recent announcements of the sharing of defences between England and France would surely rankle with this King Henry.

A rousing and entertaining production, funny, vibrant and affecting, that proves yet again that Propeller is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to staging Shakespeare today. Edward Hall is a ruddy genius.