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February 05, 2008

Hal Becomes Harry: Henry V at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's Henry V
directed by Michael Boyd
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 25th October 2007 - 14th March 2008

William Hazlitt believed that Henry V was Shakespeare's problem play. As a man of the Left Enlightenment he was prepared to regard Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew as a model husband dealing with a difficult wife.

But Hazlitt thought that it was impossible to sympathise or identify with Henry as a central character. He is a man who kills prisoners, threatens cities with rape and pillage and drags away uneducated illiterates to be slaughtered in foreign wars. He exemplifies mere "regal licence"; he replaces our sense of human decency with a reactionary call to honour and nation; once in France he "destroys all that he cannot enslave".

Hazlitt, who died in 1830, might have been shocked to learn that twentieth century directors, actors and audiences did not find the play problematic nor its eponymous hero repugnant.

In England, at least, its patriotism has played easily and attracted the greatest leading men. For persons of the male persuasion (and, perhaps, some of the female nowadays) it offers, in the St. Crispin's Day speech, the greatest of all team talks, which is also the greatest of all self-defining questions. Which is when your captain's hand on your shoulder smites and he asks, "Well? Are you going home to Mummy or are you going to do something just once in your life?" Except, of course, Shakespeare puts it rather better than this.

The RSC's repertory development of the eight contiguous history plays has entrusted the biggest part of all, running through both parts of Henry IV as well as Henry V, to Geoffrey Streatfeild. Curiously, gratifyingly, the whole thing lifts off; what was a good, interesting, competent Henry IV becomes a superb Henry V from the very beginning.

I have never seen a Chorus who tells his story with greater conviction than does Forbes Masson, sometimes walking the stage and sometimes playing the piano. Towards the end, what with his little beard and late Elizabethan costume, I, in a kind of reverie, assumed for just a moment that he was William Shakespeare.

The early scene in which the Archbishop of Canterbury explains the relevance of Salic Law to Henry's claim to the French throne (which includes a potted history of Western Europe from Charlemagne onwards) is normally tedious and I have seen many an audience become restless during its delivery. But here Geoffrey Freshwater as the Archbishop turns it into something gloriously clear and funny, with perhaps just a hint of tribute to the late Sir Nigel Hawthorne's performance as Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Of course, the important thing is Geoffrey Streatfeild's performance and this seems to go up a class with each play. I thought he was quite good as Hal in Part I, better in Part II and excellent here. Given the repertory system it isn't his development as an actor - he's been in all three plays for months and has another four months to go - so it must be that he feels better in the skin of the heroic Harry than in that of the more complicated Hal. He is not the best I have ever seen (Kenneth Branagh or Ian Glenn), but he is very good and his gathering of his "band of brothers" with its contempt for the "gentlemen in England now a'bed" raised the goose pimples.

On the other hand, I was slightly disappointed with Jonathan Slinger's Fluellen. It has been highly praised, but it seemed unoriginal compared with much in these productions: perhaps it's impossible, these days to avoid playing Fluellen as a prototype Neil Kinnock.

There is no shortage here of theatrical innovation - or gimmicks, if you prefer. The French, posy and over-dressed as usual, hang about (literally) on trapezes. The battles are excellent: brief, noisy, violent and multi-dimensional with action underground, on the ground and in the air. Streamers arc across the theatre to represent the arrows at Agincourt. The stage is stacked with coffins to represent the French dead and a platform built upon them to discuss the peace; crude enough symbolism, you could say, but I've not seen it done before and I thought it worked.

(Of course, there were virtually no English dead: Shakespeare and his source - Holinshed - seem to have got that about right because what happened was that the French cavalry, going in for the kill, committed collective suicide by charging up a narrowing muddy valley, easy prey for the showers of English arrows.)

There are also some changes of scene order and additions to the text. The latter are mainly jokes, though there is one reference to warfare in our own times.

One may quibble about the parts: I could have done without the trapezes, for instance. But there is no doubt that the whole works. An important element of this is self-fulfilling prophecy. Rumour (including Review) has done his work. The house is full, which was not the case for the performances of Henry IV that I saw. Moreover, it is full of believers: audience and actors already think this production is a success, which hugely assists it in being a success.

When Henry V works it does so because we become camp followers. Whatever we believe in the daytime with Harry in the night we believe in honour, in nation and in kingship.

Hazlitt's doubts have no place on stage; their place, always, is in the programme. In this one, for instance, Tom Nairn suggests that Shakespeare contributed to the crushing of the republican tradition in England, though I give most of the credit to the Hanoverians for their inadvertent invention of a form of monarchy that was modern and non-doctrinal.

On April 1st this ensemble with its eight plays moves to the Roundhouse in London for a two month season. To those who don't see plays in Stratford, but might in London, I would say that it's all good, but Henry V and Henry VI are the best.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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