What a wonderful new innovation this is by the RSC, bringing all the atmosphere of this famous Stratford venue of Shakespeare’s productions to a whole new range of audiences who may not otherwise have the opportunity!
We start our viewing with an introduction from the director, Gregory Doran, the RSC’s current Artistic Director, setting the scene. This is the first production of Henry V he has staged and he contends that no other of the Bard’s plays has been so appropriated.
Lawrence Olivier produced his film of the play in 1944 as England prepared for the Normandy Landing, was told by Winston Churchill that it needed to lift the morale of the population. He subsequently shortened the script by 1,700 lines, taking out any negative things said about the king! Doran: “It was needed to be a piece of patriotic jingoism, if you like.”
Ever since, the play has often been presented in a time of crisis: Peter Hall’s production in the early 1960’s, while anti Vietnam War demonstrations were going on, Kenneth Branagh’s in 1984, at the height of the Falklands Crisis. It’s a barometer of the public mood towards war.
This time around, although it’s the 600th Anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt, there isn’t a particular war going on. So we can look at the play without feeling we have to be partisan about war itself. Doran again: “Now it’s a study of how Henry grows into his role of Warrior King. His relationship to God is very interesting. I know of no other Shakespearean character who mentions God as much.”
Henry’s quest as a warrior king does not come lightly but at the cost of many lives of ordinary men, sons of “fathers of war proof” who, as we see in the play, are not necessarily as imbued with the need to conquer as their king. Professor James Shapiro attests that Shakespeare was very attuned to current events and good at incorporating popular mores into his plays. “What’s extraordinary about this play is how he has included all the voices across society from those in power, those challenging or rebelling against this power, to those pro war or against or those just doing what they’re told.”
In 1599, at the end of Elizabeth the First’s reign when this play was written, England was in the middle of the Nine Year War with Ireland. A year earlier the Earl of Essex was dispatched to relieve the garrison at Armargh. His force was destroyed but at that time in England one in fifty men was conscripted. Shapiro: “You can feel the play resting on the tectonic plates of this fraught cultural and social moment. …it makes you feel the fear in the streets of London.”
We also hear from Alex Hassell who plays Henry, who previously performed as Hal in Henry IV Parts I & II. In his opinion the play is an account of how the young Prince Hal copes with being thrust into the awful position of power upon the death of his father; leaving behind the influence of Falstaff and the “gadding about’ and excessive lifestyle, deciding “who to trust” in taking up the legacy of regaining the lands in France lost to his forebears.
Hassell commented, “I think it’s important to allow a character to grow during the time of the play rather than see how the character ends up and play that from the beginning.”
Unfortunately, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, although I have no doubt Alex Hassell’s delivery style suited young Prince Hal, he seemed not to develop the gravitas needed as the Warrior King. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” I’m afraid sounded more like a fearful schoolboy trying to banish terror by giving himself a good pep talk than one of the most inspirational speeches in literature, guaranteed to “conjure up the blood”.
We also heard from Oliver Ford Davies who played a charming Chorus: “The Chorus has three characteristics: he narrates, tells the story. But at the beginning it’s a plea to the audience to forgive the inadequacies of staging. Then, third, he is the “unreliable narrator”; a device whereby Shakespeare gives us the unofficial history, contending that war is perhaps more complex than the official history books will tell you.” This Chorus is a warm, kindly, likeable figure whose plea or instructions you would be heartless to deny.
The production generally is a lot of fun. Even before the first famous line: “OH, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!…” there is humour. As the Chorus wanders on stage and picks up the King’s crown, supposedly carelessly left on the throne, Hassell strides on and takes it from him, throws a look at the audience, then strides off – to the audience’s delight.
The production features lusty performances from the entire cast, with stand out scenes full of slapstick and wit to suit all tastes as the Bard intended, from Antony Byrne playing Auncient Pistol, Sarah Parks playing Mistress Nell Quickly, Martin Bassindale playing Robin the Luggage-Boy, (played by Christian Bale in Kenneth Branagh’s film, Robert Gilbert playing Louis the Dauphin and especially Jane Lapotaireas as Queen Isobel and Jennifer Kirby, as Princess Katherine de Valois.
After the Battle of Agincourt is fought and won, (sounds easy when you say it quickly!) the light relief we crave is very ably and enjoyably provided again with wit and nonsense involving Pistol and Captain Llewellyn. Then follows a wonderful tortured scene from Queen Isobel as she decries the loss of peace in France; “Alas, she has too long been chased.” (which turns out to be extremely apt and poignant given the events of Black Friday 13th 2015!).
Then, ironically, Mr Hassell seems more comfortable in the ‘unanswered love’ scene with Katherine, playing the fumbling King out of his comfort zone with faltering French, trying to win her love.
Everything about this production is quite delightful, notwithstanding my reservations about Mr Hassell’s performance. The staging and costumes, the live Medieval style accompanying music, (although I would have liked to hear them a little more), and the lusty performances make it a noble effort worthy of the iconic RSC, and is guaranteed to “..bend up every spirit to his full height!”
Recommended. Cinemagoers can see this Royal Shakespeare production of the Bard’s HENRY V PARTS 1 AND 2 when it screens at the Palace Verona and Norton Street cinemas. Screening times of the film for both cinemas are Saturday 21 November and Sunday 22 November at 1pm.