Barbican Theatre, London (****)
The RSC’s ambitions know no bounds. Even whilst Greg Doran’s four-play King and Country culminates at the Barbican with revivals of Richard II (with David Tennant), Henry IV parts 1 & 2 (with Antony Sher and Jasper Britton) and Henry V, they’re also embarked on a translation of the complete works of Shakespeare into Chinese, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 2023.
And in case, you hadn’t guessed, next year marks the 400th anniversary of his death, whilst this year was the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, all of which gives a kind of symmetry to the company’s plans.
But, in the meantime, this transfer to the Barbican and the battle of Agincourt and our ancient enmities with France took on a darker hue in the light of events in Paris. Greg Doran’s Henry V with a sudden kind of unforeseen syncronicity sits as a sombre, sober comment on war.
For this is no rabble-rousing nationalistic account so often associated with Henry V and exploited by Olivier in his chauvinistic, stirring World War II film version. It’s been a long time coming and directors over the past few decades have steadily turned down the patriotic heat until now, with Doran clearly under the influence of World War One revisionist history (and maybe taking his own cue from references in the text to the battle being close by the Somme), Henry V emerges as a thoroughly anti-heroic take on the English king who recovered French lands and the crown only for his son, Henry VI to lose them.
For some decades now, building on Peter Hall and John Barton’s groundbreaking 1964 Henry VI’s and Richard III (restyled the Wars of the Roses), the RSC with other companies have parcelled up Shakespeare’s history plays to give them added resonance.
Perhaps to get the full flavour, Shakespeare enthusiasts should march themselves off to the Barbican to see the full tetralogy, of how Richard II squandered the French territory, how Bolingbroke usurped him, adopting the crown to become Henry IV and how the stain hung over his son, Prince Hal’s early years until as Henry V his riotous `apprenticeship’ with Falstaff, Pistol, Mistress Quickly and the rest is abruptly put aside.
We join him – and Alex Hassell (who played Hal) – as a diffident, rookie leader still learning the ropes, unsure if his claim to the French crown can be justified and seeking, like recent leaders in our time, legal justification to make war – in Henry’s case from the Archbishop.
In these early days and Doran’s production – designer Stephen Brimson Lewis provides a mostly bare stage adorned only by shimmering if handsome back projections of cathedral interiors, city walls etc – Hassell’s young monarch cuts an underwhelming figure. What liveliness emanates from the stage, typically comes from the `low-life’ rag-tag-and-bobtail English army conscripts of Pistol, Bardolph et al, a veritable medieval Dad’s Army. And a lively, energetic Oliver Ford-Davies’ Chorus – a professor for all ages in red scarf and pullover, exhorting us to work our imaginations `work, work your thoughts…’ and imagine we see the fields of France, the army camps, Harfleur…
But Hassell – and Henry – grow into their roles. By the time we reach Agincourt and his rousing St Crispin’s day speech, this quiet man with the common touch has become confident, persuasive and moving.
Doran also invests a delightful playfulness into his staging of the French Princess Katherine’s English lesson and Henry’s later wooing, with Jennifer Kirby showing not only zippy linguistic gallic flair as Katherine but a nicely gauged independent streak for all that she’s the object of a necessary political alliance between England and France.
Overall then, a muted, trench-infused production but one frequently inspiring thoughtful parallels applicable to today.
Henry V is at the Barbican Theatre to Dec 30, 2015
King and Country
RICHARD II, HENRY IV PARTS I AND II AND HENRY V to Jan 24, 2016
Review first published in Londongrip, Nov 2015 and amended here.