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.