The view from G21: watching Henry V (RSC)

Yes, I know this is primarily a blog about science fiction and fantasy, and yes, I know I’ve done very little but post about theatre productions lately, but there’s one last production from 2015 I want to take note of.

We saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry V on screen a few weeks ago, a production I approached with some trepidation, given how disappointed I was with Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I am still gnawing on the bones of that double production, and what the hell went wrong with it, and I’m still no further forward in figuring it out. I do not think Elizabeth I would have demanded to see more of Sher’s Falstaff: a pedantic bore, though I grant you Sher brought out the fat knight’s nastier side rather well (and indeed, I found that aspect of the characterisation all the more interesting). And Hal – quicksilver youth, master of the witty riposte – was nowhere in sight in Alex Hassell’s portrayal. On the one hand, I was hoping he would go on to portray Henry V because, continuity; on the other, I wasn’t terribly looking forward to it, except perhaps for the hope offered right at the end of H4/2, when the newly minted king repudiates his old drinking pal. At that point Hassell was quietly magnificent in the way he cut Sher dead (and I have to say that Sher’s response at that moment was excellent – it was a genuine blow to the character, whatever he might have intended to make of a continued friendship).

So we took ourselves off to Canterbury for Henry V rather like people about to take their necessary syrup of theatre. Happily, it turned out that this production was very different to its predecessors. Whatever he lacked as Hal, Alex Hassell was a superb Henry V, but the entire production sparkled, right from the moment that the Chorus (Oliver Ford Davies) wandered onto the stage, looking like a slightly bewildered don who’d taken a wrong turn while searching for the cloakroom. As he reaches the throne in the middle of the stage, he notices the crown lying on it, picks it up … and Alex Hassell, clutching a bottle of water, comes storming out of the wings to glare at the Chorus, snatch the crown from his hands and storm off again. It’s a lovely comic moment, but interesting too in how neatly, how economically, it establishes what the whole sequence of plays, from Richard II onwards, has been about – trying to establish who is entitled to that crown. And of course much of HenryV is about Henry trying to consolidate his right to that crown.

At the same time, that opening moment reminds us that this is a staging of history, not actual history playing out before us. That innocuous water bottle cues us to the fact that this is an Actor who has stormed across the stage, but perhaps an Actor who is already heavily invested in his role. Nonetheless, he is not yet Henry, not until the Chorus actually speaks, and brings the play into being. In an interview broadcast during the interval, Oliver Ford Davies discussed the role of the Chorus, suggesting that the play is rather subversive in the way it plays with the idea of history as a propaganda tool, and history as it happens, noting in particular how the Chorus describes the night before the battle of Agincourt, and Henry’s legendary incognito journey through the camp, as showing the amity among the men, when almost the first thing we actually see is the disguised Henry getting into a fight. There’s clearly a major gap between the ‘historical record’ and the ‘reality’ of what we see. Which seems more real?

Another of the roles of the Chorus, as Davies also noted, is to guide the imagination of play-goers as the action skips back and forth across the Channel (no time for scene-changes), but he also saw ample room within that to subvert the idea that what was being represented was in any way accurate, pointing up the theatricality of the whole thing, emphasising that much of this play existed within our heads only. It seemed to me, too, that Davies emphasised this by playing the Chorus as the Peter Snow of that time, anchoring live coverage of political events.

Did I mention that this was a screamingly funny production? Everyone I’ve discussed this with since has said something along the lines of ‘Oh yes, Henry V is incredibly funny’ but I can’t say I’d ever noticed. The only production I’ve seen on stage is the RSC’s 1984 version, with Branagh as Henry, which, insofar as I recall it, was reassuringly martial, with an excruciating courtship scene. Young Branagh could be a very good comic actor, but when I look at the stills of that production, it’s all about chunky armour and blokeishness (and apparently, I saw Brian Blessed in this production, though the scenery appears to have remained totally unchewed). My memory is the blood, sweat and tears of men going to battle and losing their comrades. Apparently, much fuss was made at the time of Branagh’s own youth in playing the part of a young and inexperienced king, but my recollection is that there was never much doubt that he knew how to run an army and conduct a campaign.

In his pre-show interview, Gregory Doran suggested that Henry V tends to be rolled out at moments when the UK is in need of a bit of reassurance about its place in the world, and linked the Branagh production to the Falklands War back in 1982, much as Churchill had demanded Olivier get to work and produce the film version as wartime propaganda. Hmm, one might think, and I probably would have done, given the fairly traditional and conservative nature of that Branagh production, except that Doran swiftly moved on to appear to suggest that his shiny new 2015 production was remarkable in that it was being put on at a moment when Britain wasn’t engaged in military activity. This caused a rather loud and sharp intake of breath from the occupant of seat G21 while the occupant of G20 braced himself to grab her before she could leap up and shout “Bollocks” at the screen. It was a near thing, and I regret to say I recall nothing else of what Doran said because I was too busy being incandescent with rage at the stupidity of someone who seemed to have failed to notice that THINGS WERE HAPPENING IN EASTERN EUROPE AND THE MIDDLE EAST!!! And that Cameron was already itching to get involved in a ‘let’s bomb people’ sort of way rather than favouring the ‘let’s help refugees’ option. Of course, now we can see just how prescient Doran actually was … wait, no, I’m sorry, I can’t do that hand-wavey, I knew this would happen all along, sort of thing. It’s what he said. On the other hand, one might then recall Davies talking about the subversive nature of the production, and wonder what the hell was actually going on.

Ahem. Did I mention that this was a screamingly funny production? It really is. The French lesson, the delivery of the tennis balls, the courtship scene, all of them were milked for comedic effect in the nicest way. Leigh Quinn was wonderful as Alice while Robert Gilbert’s foppish Dauphin, dressed as though he’s just escaped from an old-fashioned pack of playing cards, was a joy to watch, almost a pantomime villain, but very nasty in his efforts to foment war. In the courtship scene, Hassell and Jennifer Kirby as Katherine seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, to the point where I had the distinct impression they’d managed to crack one another up (I’m hoping this is the performance that makes it onto DVD). But there was a lot of subtle by-play too, as the various lords and clerics attempted to flummox the young and inexperienced king with charters and past precedents, in the belief he hadn’t been remotely paying attention to anything while he was gallivanting round the taverns, only to discover how wrong they were as he turned the tables on them. One might argue, I suppose, that Hal had been learning the raw truth about how people like Falstaff manipulate others to their advantage, but that seems a bit glib. Instead, we might suppose that when he wasn’t on stage, Hal was hidden away, slaving over legal records, ready for this day. Possibly implausible, too, but I liked the conceit of it.

But that’s the thing about Hassell’s young king. Putting aside the history, putting aside what we know of the play, we want the romance of his unexpected success, because he is patently trying hard to be a good king, or rather, to be good at being king, knowing already that being king is a shitty job, that it is necessary to repudiate the likes of Falstaff because, squeaky clean and all that. We see that again later when Bardolph and Nym are hanged for looting – despite being former comrades of Henry’s, this is what he must do to maintain his authority, and he knows this. (And Doran might want to look again at his apparent belief in the apolitical nature of this production. I have but two words for him at this juncture: Club and Bullingdon.)

And that’s one of the things I like about this production: it doesn’t glorify Henry but it shows him learning to be king. I like the way in which Hassell has Henry literally learn how to speak like a king. At first his tones seem strangulated – what struck me about Tennant’s Richard II was that he had a ‘being a king’ voice – but gradually, Henry figures out how to sound like a king as well as like a person. His ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech is heartfelt rather than majestic, and I like it all the better for that. War, as we are about to find out yet again, is messy, and I can’t find it in my heart to love a production that glorifies it in any way (which suggests that possibly Doran really does have this figured out, but let his mouth run away from his brain during that live interview).

There are so many other things going on around the edges of the play as well. Pistol (Anthony Byrne), the coward, now the husband of Mistress Quickly, is somehow transformed into a man who doesn’t want to go to war but when put to it will accept the inevitable and get on with it. He’s no angel, just more adept at not getting caught, and yet he shows moments of tenderness and emotion, pleading for his friends, mourning Falstaff, taking leave of his wife. I must admit I’m always fascinated by the spiv characters, the dodgy dealers, the people who will rise to the occasion when they have to but not until they have to (Private Walker in Dad’s Army is a similar one) so I find myself noodling around with Pistol’s life beyond the stage. And yes, Fluellen (Joshua Richards, who also played Bardolph magnificently) is a caricature Welshman but his pride in his nationality and in Henry being a Welshman too (Monmouth-born, you see) is beguiling. The scene where Pistol is forced to eat a leek is delightful. There’s also a verbal tic that constantly resurfaces throughout the place – Henry does it, and Fluellen does it, too – of the character never quite finishing what they’re saying at the point when people think they have. Not sure if it’s significant, but there is some sort of play with power and authority going on.

I could go on (I generally do), but it really boils down to this being a splendid production, well worth seeing. Get the DVD when it’s available. (I really like the fact that the RSC release DVDs of their productions, unlike another royal theatre company I could mention, that clearly intends to endlessly monetize their productions by not making then available except through encore broadcasts in cinemas, etc.). Paul Kincaid and I have been arguing mildly over which is the best production we’ve seen this year, and it boils down to Henry V and Othello. I’m not actually minded to pick between them. They’re such different plays, and each represents the best of the two companies that have been playing this year, so let’s leave it at that.

My first play lined up for next year is Branagh’s production of The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s more batshit plays (I do actually like the batshit plays because they are often so wonderfully disjointed, and the gaping fissures are the most interesting part – Pericles, Prince of Tyre anyone?). I was not overly impressed with Branagh’s production of Macbeth; I am hoping for better from this production.

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