‘Henry V’ – With Just a Little Too Much Invention

Henry V – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Propeller

Publicity for Henry V

I’ll begin with my gripes: getting such matters off one’s chest always enables one to take a more reasoned view. 

My complaints about the opening night run thus. Propeller – I have been going to the theatre long enough to know that opening nights are variable in length, but, please, take note:

  1. It is not good enough to begin late, whether or not it’s the opening night; it won’t do, telling the audience when they arrive that the performance will end at 10.30pm (itself a later time than we were initially told by the theatre) and then finishing at 11.00pm. Not all of your audience live in Guildford. I heard a college group moan quite loudly that they would miss the last tubes when they did finally get back to London.
  2. It especially won’t do when a good chunk of the audience are school pupils. Quite apart from the welfare of students, teachers need sleep. Yes, we have thirteen weeks of holiday in which to recover – I know, I know, I’ll say it again, thirteen weeks – but on less than six hours of kip, those who are now middle aged are not compos mentis the following day.

Yet before I launch into some unfair sniding, it must be stated that if there’s one play by Shakespeare I know really well it’s Henry V – and I acknowledge it is a challenging play to stage. Not least is the difficulty that many in the audience will think that they know the play already. It’s become the stuff of myths, and for many, it’s a supreme example of patriotism; many an Englishman, particularly when fuelled up on cans of Carling Black Label, will exclaim, ‘God for Harry, England and St George’ or ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’. Such language has been that of at least one beer advertisement and the alluded to in numerous Sun headlines..

Shakespeare, however, is actually highly ambiguous in his representation of Henry and there are a number of apparently contradictory scenes in which Shakespeare’s presentation of nationalism veers from the jingoistic to the vehemently anti-war, with a keen awareness of the true cost of conflict. The Chorus, for example, is frequently at variance with the apparent portrayal elsewhere of Henry, whilst the inclusion of characters such as Bardolph, Nym and Pistol – once Henry’s friends at the Boar’s Head tavern – further complicates matters as does the structure of the play. By the time of the climax at Agincourt, many of the fight scenes risk coming across as purely comic to a modern audience. The presentation of the French, meanwhile, veers from xenophobic stereotyping to the deeply sympathetic.

Faced with such textual difficulties, directors have tended to cut the script in order to emphasise one particular interpretation. Lawrence Olivier, for example, directing his film version on the eve of the D-Day landings (it was shown to Allied troops to raise morale) removed scenes which could suggest moral failing on the part of Henry. Olivier rendered the brutal battle of Agincourt, fought as the winter approaches, on a remarkably green, clean and mudless field. In contrast, the Nicholas Hytner National Theatre production of 2003, staged as Britain went to war for a second time with Iraq, left none of this out; Bardolph, for example, was shot brutally on stage, whilst Kenneth Branagh’s 1987 film cleverly cut lines which seemed to suggest Henry was guilty of war crimes.

Furthermore, any production of Henry V stands in a great tradition of performance, often on an epic scale. Whilst we might have moved on from the Victorian practice of Henry live on stage on a real white horse, the battle scenes have led, both on stage and on screen, to some quite memorable action as the ‘two mighty monarchies’ confront each other. Branagh, for example, echoes the horrors of the trenches of the First World War in his film, as the gruesome Battle of Agincourt takes place amidst filth and the most savage of hand to hand, chaotic combat. The Nicholas Hytner production, meanwhile, featured modern warfare, complete with Land Rovers on stage.

Yet I went with a great deal of anticipation. Propeller’s work has a reputation for inventiveness, and their productions last year of Richard III and The Winter’s Tale have received widespread plaudits and fine reviews.

Much of the first half was indeed characterised by a great sense of imagination. Propeller – although sponsored by Coutts, bankers to the super-rich – are clearly in a different league when it comes to finances, and, often, I’ve always maintained, the finest theatre is not about expenditure but about imagination. After all, the Chorus of Act 1 apologises for the ‘imperfections’ of the play to be forgiven by the ‘imaginary forces’ of the audience.

The opening scenes were certainly promising. The Chorus entered, a group of drunken soldiers, who began to tell the tale, dressing up from munitions boxes on stage and gradually bringing the play to life. Henry seemed a weak and not especially powerful king, a fair interpretation of Act 1 Scene 2.

Some of the best moments were highly creative: particularly memorable was the rendition of the Clash’s ‘London Calling’ as the action switched to East Cheap and the Boar’s Head. Henry’s first great trial of character at Southampton, when his closest friend is revealed to be amongst a group of traitors in the pay of the French, was also finely done. Set wise, a simple scaffold tower was used superbly – both at Harfluer and at the moment when Bardolph was hanged.  Torchlight made for atmospheric war front scenes. And there were some fine performances –Llewellyn particularly stands out, as did Exeter. Visually, this was great entertainment and the first half ended with a real sense of energy and pace to the performance.

But there were several moments where the play did not quite work – it was almost as if too many ideas were being crammed in to three hours, causing the play to lack direction or sense of overall shape. The play switched awkwardly between periods – we were not sure when the action was taking place. Was this in the medieval period, the Second World War (as many of the costumes suggested) or a modern urban environment (use of truncheons in battle)? Chief amongst these was the gift of tennis balls presented to Henry in Act 1 Scene 2, at which point several dustbins of tennis balls were tipped over the stage from on high, only to cause a nuisance to the actors until the interval, despite actors entering with brooms to remove these.

By the second half, the lack of purpose to the performance became even more evident.  Scenes normally cut were retained – and the play was much the worse for such decisions. Sometimes, we need to forget authenticity to the text – it’s what works dramatically. So we were asked to sit through the hagiographic Act 5 Chorus speech as Henry returns to London – a fine piece of Elizabethan poetry and of academic interest – but far from captivating stuff.  Agincourt itself was presented almost like a You Tube video of torture in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay as the French were ruthlessly interrogated – an interesting interpretation, but confusing for an audience and further proof that there were just too many ideas going on.

Distinctly underwhelming throughout were Henry’s speeches. The undoubted highpoint of the play – both from a literary and from a theatrical perspective – Henry, for me, failed to rouse the audience. I for one was not desperate to fight or give myself for the English cause (being a Scot, that was always going to be a problem….). The big ‘set’ speeches – particularly those before Harfluer and Agincourt – lacked pace and dynamism.

More importantly, however, the production raised a number of ethical problems for me. First was the all male cast. For me personally – and I realise this is probably most contentious – many of the representations of women verged on the offensive. Katherine’s gentlewoman, Alice, became a very butch WRAF officer, complete with moustache; Katherine herself became the source of some frankly quite sexist jokes about leg shaving.

Of course, Propeller have made the all male cast their trade mark and it features in their publicity. On their website, a member of Propeller describes playing a woman as no different from playing a man – you’re playing  a character, not a gender, runs the argument. Here, for me, the logic breaks down. Surely, by such logic, actors should be both male and female, and playing different roles, swapping gender? If gender is irrelevant, why the obsession with being an all male company? Nor does any argument about this being more in line with Shakspeare’s own theatre hold sway: Shakespeare’s actors were all male, but boys – not men – played women’s roles.

So, too, were a number of textual decisions difficult to defend. Fluellen is normally rendered ‘Llewellyn’ today and the original spelling is probably more down to Sixteenth Century ignorance of how to write Welsh names correctly. Anyone with first hand experience of the language and history of Wales is sensitive to such matters.

But to cut to the chase, did I enjoy it? Yes, overall, though with many qualifications. It was good fun (though in a play which so heavily stresses the cost of war, I’m not sure that’s what the play should be about) and inventive, but ultimately, this was not even a first night performance – more like an early draft of the show, and a few weeks later I’d hope that the edges have been smoothed and the scenes which don’t work cut.

Despite my reservations, I’d actually quite like to see the production again.  Maybe this time it will be a complete ‘like’. In the meantime, I’ve read that in May the Oxford Playhouse features the Globe Theatre’s Henry V on tour – now I wonder if that will meet my exacting standards for the finest of Shakespeare’s Histories…….