Henry V


The Barbican (RSC production)


In a fit of – I don’t know exactly what but it certainly wasn’t sanity – I bought tickets to see The King and Country tetralogy (also known as the Hollow Crown) over three days at the Barbican. This is the fourth of the four – the first is Richard II, the second is Henry IV Part One and the third is Henry IV Part Two.

Hal is back in trousers. I mislike this.

Oliver Ford Davies opens the show as Chorus and was excellent throughout – and since Shakespeare himself is now dramatically breaking the fourth wall, perhaps it was kind of the productions to lead us up to it gently. I really like Chorus’s look – baggy chinos and red scarf, like some history professor let loose to commentate on the action. And I loved how the production weaved him into the action – there was a great scene in the second half where he was casually handing the swords to the actors from a props bench.

I also loved the traditional colour coding (the English court in red, the French court in blue) which seems to be as much an essential part of staging Henry V as the actual words. We also seemed to have a comedy Dauphin – in a very odd comedy wig. I suppose the silliness rather goes with the tennis balls gift.

The feel, although still largely medieval, contained as many newer winks and nods as the stagecraft – Pistol wore a T-shirt under his coat, Fluellen had a WW1 helmet on and Exeter appeared to be fighting in a bomber jacket – perhaps this was all a nod to the timelessness of war. I pitied Kate all the more, then, that she got lumbered in the final scene with one of those awful hats like an upside down ice-cream cone with a veil…

Lady Percy from Henry IV parts one and two is now Katherine – there’s a fine change of style – and Jennifer Kirby pulled it off, even if she didn’t quite manage to get rid of the awkwardness of the French/English scene.

On to the action – which I sort of feel I shouldn’t need to recap (except perhaps for any passing aliens). Falstaff dies offstage – not what one would expect from his inclusion in the epilogue to Henry IV part two, but driven by off-stage events, as Will Kemp, the famous clown of The Chamberlain’s Men’s who played the part, left the company between plays. It feels right to me, though – what more could Falstaff have done in this war than he did in the last one, except perhaps be hanged alongside his fellows Bardolph and Nym? Nonetheless, it remains an incredibly moving scene.

The rest of the play is really all about war. I feel Shakespeare takes a fairly agnostic view – presenting all the aspects of war which allows directors to make up their own mind whether to go down the Laurence Olivier pretty-flags-and-ponies route, or the Kenneth Branagh mud-and-guts. This production played it straight down the line between the two.

The battle scenes (of which there were, naturally, quite a few) were much better – I do love a lot of alarums and excursions – and this production also managed to prove that it is still possible to make an entire audience jump using a simple firecracker – as long as they are all paying attention…

I really enjoyed “Once more unto the breach” speech – delivered just between Hal and us, as if the audience were the men he was trying urge into battle (and I totally would have stormed the stage for him, if I hadn’t been two galleries up). Apparently, though, three lines had been removed, which annoyed my pa (who belongs the generation who has screeds of Shakespeare memorised) no end. I can’t say I noticed…

Hal – to my great delight – remained largely Hal*. Concerned to prevent war and bloodshed if possible, but still hasty of temper, liking to play ridiculous practical jokes (and oh lord people are throwing down gloves again THIS MUST BE STOPPED) and so playful in his wooing of Kate. I especially loved the way they kissed and spring apart when her father came back in – exactly like a guilty schoolboy, not at all like a king**. And he was back in a long coat at the end! A vast improvement, and one that has set me to thinking about whether one can get away with full-skirted patterned red velvet these days (I do hope so).

It might have been three plays ago but Richard’s shadow still loomed large – no wonder these plays are so often presented as a tetralogy. It was there in the moving scene when Hal prays that God will not continue to hold his death against Hal’s family and England. And the echo of Richard’s journey through London, and Henry IV’s rebuke that Hal spent too much time with the common man, was also clear when Chorus told us that his time going tent-to-tent put cheer in the English army.

That every wretch, pining and pale before,

Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks;

A largess universal, like the sun,

His liberal eye doth give to every one,

Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all

Behold, as may unworthiness define,

A little touch of Harry in the night.

But in the end it all comes back to the crown – it will not be mocked – and we leave with the knowledge that Henry V will die young and his son will ascend the throne as a child, and die deposed, just as Richard II did. But that’s a whole other tetralogy.



* I really can’t bring myself to call him Henry V.

** A random footnote on kissing. All four plays have had a great deal of male kissing, the weirdest of which was probably the Dauphin kissing the constable of France. Totes awks. Especially since the Constable was played by the actor who played Aumerle (full-on snogging session with Richard II) and Poins (definitely got some Prince Hal action). Such powerful sexual magnetism surely makes Sam Marks a shoo-in for the part of Richard III (was ever woman in such humour won? Well probably, no-one else can resist him).


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