The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V, running at the Barbican till late January, is extremely timely, arriving on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.
Despite appearing slap bang in the middle of his career – written in 1599, Henry V was the 21st of Shakespeare’s (roughly) 42 plays, according to many modern chronologies – it is his most fully realised history play.
Appearing as the fourth in his second history tetralogy, encompassing Richard II and Henry IV (whom he covered in two parts), it is a sophisticated discussion of kingship, power and war that rewards close reading.
Not pro- or anti-war
In order to stage a successful production of Henry V, the most important factor is to acknowledge that it is not the jingoistic tub-thumper of myth.
The 1944 film, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, and commissioned by the British government to boost morale, may well have been the first silver-screen adaptation of the Bard to achieve commercial success, but it was also really dreadful.
It’s dreadful not just because of the aforementioned tub-thumping jingoism, but also because it failed seriously to deal with the ambivalence and the nuance of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry himself.
Thankfully, Gregory Doran’s production at the Barbican avoids these major errors. Under Doran’s careful guidance, the RSC’s production is a play neither pro- or anti-war, but about going to war.
The play’s the thing
Some of the best moments are in the reappraisal of the famous speeches. In particular, the delivery of “once more unto the breach” – often portrayed, such as in Ken Branagh’s 1989 film, as a rallying cry – is made into a real argument.
Here, Henry is a small man on an empty stage, pleading with his “troops” – actually the audience – for one more push. Alex Hassell is excellent here, managing to infuse the high-flown rhetoric with real uncertainty.
Hassell also excels during the subsequent speech to the governor of Harfleur. Again, this is lent extra weight through the direction; the governor is on stage, but not visible, for most of the speech, in which the English king lists a range of gruesome threats should surrender not ensue.
These threats are some of the most problematic in Shakespeare’s depiction – infanticide and rape feature heavily. Even allowing for historical context Henry’s determination is fearsome, bordering on criminal. But delivering the speech to an empty stage is a masterstroke – giving the scene an air of uncertainty, allowing the king to say things that he might draw back from addressing to someone’s face.
Hassell is less impressive in the genuinely tub-thumping speeches. His rather reedy voice is well-suited to quieter passages – his tour through the camp on the eve of battle is a real highlight – but lacks the power for the “band of brothers” call to arms as Agincourt dawns.
The actual staging is rather bare, but it is enlivened by excellent lighting, including a very clever method that can create the appearance of different structures, as well as weather conditions – the “rain” during the battle was particularly impressive. Two elevated walkways at stage right and left enable some interesting positioning, and give the play its crowning moment of pathos, when a kind of celestial choir (including some of those killed in battle) join to sing the Te Deum as Henry realises he has won the day.
Other highlights included Oliver Ford Davies as a witty and occasionally grumpy Chorus. The understanding of how Shakespeare played with his audience – sometimes teasing, sometimes demanding – was clear and these moments, which can often drag, zipped by. I would say that the humorous scenes were done very well overall, too; if Branagh’s film had a failing it was that those bits were sometimes ponderous. Here, Doran has huge fun with the Welsh/Irish/Scottish dialogue, getting big laughs from Fluellen’s leek obsession among other things.
Warring like it’s 1599
What could be more fitting than a play addressing complex issues of leadership and conflict in November 2015?
The reason I keep coming back to Henry V as one of my favourite Shakespeare plays is because it is unafraid to address those enormous questions that echo down through history.
Serious study of the play would benefit all aspiring and current leaders, whether of a small number of people or of entire nations. Prime Ministers and Presidents across the world are currently wrestling with a rapidly worsening security situation that for the first time in my remembered life threatens to end up in a return to global conflict between large nations.
The self-awareness that Henry shows, his grasp of history and his understanding of his enemy, are all attributes that some of our esteemed leaders would do well to emulate.
And for us, the audience, understanding the weight of the decisions such leaders have to make is vital. We will be better citizens and better critics of foreign policy if we take seriously the real difficulty of such responsibility. As Shakespeare himself put it, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Our modern leaders do not always wear the crown, but this week of all weeks they are just as susceptible to the stress and loss of sleep that accompanies events of great moment.