Henry V

Henry V – Noel Coward Theatre, booking until 15 February 2014

So the Michael Grandage season draws to a close with Henry V; one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and one that sees Grandage reunite with Jude Law following their Hamlet in 2009, itself a reminder of Law’s theatrical qualities – something that always feels at risk of being buried among the dead weight of his often mediocre Hollywood movies.

The cinema is a useful starting point for Henry V and possibly one reason why Jude Law was approached for the role, because the play itself is one that feels strangely uncomfortably suited to the stage and its ongoing popularity is perhaps more due to the rousing film versions of Olivier, Branagh and, more recently, Tom Hiddleston.

The main difficulty of staging Henry V lies in the fact that a large proportion of the plot is set directly in, and around, live battles. Fight scenes (between armies rather than individuals) are very difficult to recreate convincingly on stage.

The playwright or director is left with two choice; to attempt to find a way of portraying the battle on stage, something that is fraught with difficulty and which rarely emerges coherently or providing any sense of the brutality and terror of war, or to stage the battle offstage and intercut with appropriate scenes. Choosing the second option, as Shakespeare creates a problem in that the audience is always aware that the real excitement is happening elsewhere and it is a struggle to maintain focus.

Film has the advantage of having it both ways; jump-cuts can propel the action without the need for laborious changes of scene, the bewilderingly frenetic action of a medieval battle at ground level can be interweaved with a top-down view that allows the viewer to pick up the rhythm and flow of a wider military operation in progress. The editing room also allows for the surging music to flow through the veins and for the hero to be heard amidst the clamour of war.

The ability of this to manipulate the audience is abundantly clear in the music that underpins the fairly basic structure of Branagh’s St Crispin’s Day speech and amongst the pomp and pageantry captured in the Olivier’s classic version of 1944; two scenes that must rank amongst the most watched of any recorded Shakespeare.

And

The legend of Henry V, be it the battle of Agincourt or Shakespeare’s note that tells of ‘ten thousand French / That in the field lie slain’ against the English ‘Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk /Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:/ None else of name; and of all other men / But five and twenty’ [IV.viii], has laid deep roots in what it means to be English and serves to reinforce the enduring myth of the noble island standing up in the face of overwhelming odds to foreign foes.

Shakespeare’s quill is capable of casting long shadows over England’s history. The rehabilitation of Richard III is still a work in progress and Henry VI has no real place in our history following the magnificently succinct dismissal of his legacy in just four lines at the very end of Henry V: ‘Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King / Of France and England, did this king succeed; / Whose state so many had the managing, / That they lost France and made his England bleed’ [V.V]  

So Henry V, with its multi-purpose king who is at home walking among the common man and issuing rousing speeches to inspire the troops as he is seducing French princesses and charming ambassadors, was always likely to chime with the public. He may as well have come straight out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, lending a helping hand to Arthur as he attempts to pull Excalibur out of a handily placed stone.

Yet for all of this Henry V remains a very curious play, perhaps not in the sense of the grand complexity of King Lear or the later plays, The Tempest and Cymbeline, which play on a strange magical realism at odds with his earlier realism. In comparison Henry V has a plot of the utmost simplicity and which only touches on the psychological depths of his later work. However it is also structured in a way that is oddly obtuse and can test the patience of an unsuspecting audience; it is telling that Frank Kermode spoke of it as a ‘a play that is many respects unloveable but of cunning construction’.

Amidst all of the ‘once more into the breach…’ heroics it is easy forget that the play opens – post prologue – on two long, dry scenes setting out the justification for war. At this juncture the audience could be forgiven for thinking they had wandered into the Royal Courts of Justice by mistake. Mustiness seems to envelop the stage as the religious leaders strain to find a basis for war that might distract Henry from levies on their temporal lands; leading, eventually, into Canterbury’s famously interminable speech on the ‘land Salique’ that underpins Henry’s right to French lands.

This is scene is difficult for a modern day audience unaccustomed to the intricacies of medieval European succession legislation. Nuttall points to two ways to play this scene; comically or with the audience drawn to the engagement Jude Law in Henry V, Noel Coward Theatreof Henry into the outcome of Canterbury’s speech. Perhaps it was due to it being early in the Previews but Grandage’s production failed to fulfil either criteria, the scene is certainly not comic – in the style of Polonius instructing Laertes before his journey to France – but yet Law’s Henry seemed to barely engage with the subject and there is little import in his interjection of ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim’ [I.ii]. The result is problematically little of the dynamism that Shakespeare seems to like injecting into the openings of his plays and nothing to grab the audience’s attention.

This is reinforced by the drabness of the set design. Christopher Oram has chosen to very literally reflect in the set the Prologue’s question of whether ‘can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?’ [I.i], and made the stage in the style of a cockpit. As a result we have the most Spartan of sets, wooden slats that have been distressed to an extent that they wouldn’t seem out of place lining the kitchen floor in an Islington show home.

There is versatility to the design but it also seems like an excuse, which recurs throughout the production, to avoid asserting an overarching sense of purpose to bind everything together. The Prologue is dressed in modern clothes, which is understandable apart from the fact that he also doubles as a boy slaughtered by the French army whilst in the same costume, before reappearing at the end to close the play. The rest of the costumes are traditional; all britches and jerkins and the occasional codpiece. There is nothing wrong with presenting traditional Shakespeare but it does add to the slightly soporific air that settles over proceedings.

The curious nature of the play continues throughout, with long scenes in French that provide a comic highpoint, and a monologue from the King of France that rivals Canterbury in its unforgiving nature, containing, as it does, six lines dedicated to the naming of the French aristocracy. The play does not even end, as you would expect, in the aftermath of Agincourt but several scenes and many minutes later with the joining of the French and English kingdoms in marriage.

This can be explained in the underlying pressures on Shakespeare’s writing from the external world but he still manages to raise interesting questions along the way. Among these are the scenes where Henry walks amongst his men, echoing the footsteps of the younger Prince Hal, but Shakespeare offset’s this with Falstaff’s offstage death and the hanging of Bardolph with the king’s assent.

There is clearly material to work with here to provide Henry with more depth but without prior knowledge it would have been impossible to know that Law’s Henry knew Bardolph from his days at The Boar’s Head. It means that we do not get to see the tension within Henry for the life he cast aside at the end of Henry IV part II, and renders the death of Falstaff almost meaningless within the play.

Jude Law is perfectly adequate as Henry; he speaks the verse perfectly well and he is very good in the more comic elements of the play. His scenes with Katherine at the end of the play are loose, natural and provide more emotional reality than is in the whole of the preceding two hours.

It felt, and this is why it was a preview, that he was still developing the boundaries of the role. He picks at the play-acting nature of the king and makes this sense of role-play quite explicit in a reasonably effective manner. Shakespeare continually returns to the king/prince as actor – it is the downfall of Richard II, it is how Hamlet seeks to uncover truth and in Henry IV it is in Prince Hal’s realisation that it is this he must leave behind if he wants to take on the regal nature of kingship.

Law’s Henry test the boundaries at which he can play-act. It is as if he has moved past the covert playing of roles that was the domain of Prince Hal but as King Henry he has incorporated the mannerisms into his everyday interactions, and it is in this that he can connect with those not on his social level. We see this in Law’s own St Crispin’s Day speech where his voice drops its regal air and assumes the manner of the tavern as he exhorts the troops to ”say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’ / Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars. /And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.” [IV.iii]

It is also how he woos Katherine, he states that ‘If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king’ [V.v] and is aware that whilst he can have Katherine, he must also win her. Not, as Katherine herself states, ‘the enemy of France’ [V.v] but as an everyday person, a soldier, who like Katherine, finds themselves tossed upon the vicissitudes of greater powers.

Unfortunately over the course of a draining two and three-quarter hours there is little here that raises much above the average. It is stolid and worthy and competent but in its dramatically inert; there is no sense of vision or moments of real invention. It is not much more than Shakespeare-by-numbers.

Summing up the season

As the Michael Grandage season draws to a close this production feels like a fitting end. It is the epitome of the whole safe, traditional, bums-on-seats nature of the project. People bemoan a West End bereft of drama but one wonders how many may have been turned-off theatre by the conservative nature of what they have seen.

Not one of the plays tried to break free and try something new, even the choice of the seemingly outrageous Martin McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan was tempered by the fact that it is the most accessible and least Peter and Alice - Ben Wishaw and Judi Denchoffensive of his plays and it came off the back of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful In Bruges. Peter and Alice was a crushing disappointment on many levels.

Whilst I did not see Grandage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the idea of a 1960’s set is hardly the height of originality and seems likely to pale into insignificance against the well-received Julie Taymor production currently in New York, and the version coming to the Barbican in the Spring that reunites the team behind Warhorse.

The cheap seats are too be admired, drawing high-profile names to get new faces into the theatre is to be admired; one hopes that in future seasons a bit more excitement could be injected into the programming, if for no other reason than to hint at a private sector that is capable of producing plays that at least try to compete with publically-subsidised theatre in terms of originality and vision.

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