I imagine most theatregoers have clear memories of when they first witnessed a production of Henry V. Whenever I hear an actor launch into ‘O for a muse of fire!’ I am immediately taken back to that enraptured childhood moment when I first saw the Olivier film.. the panning shot across Tudor London, Walton’s sprightly music of chivalric pastiche, and the first sight of the ‘wooden O’. For others it may be Kenneth Branagh’s muddier but still heroic cinematic version, or the Hytner-Lester anti-war production from a decade or so ago. Few of us can come to this play without a whole set of pre-conceptions and brave is the director who sets out to find a way of saying something new about this play that we all think we know very well.
Yet that is what Antic Disposition and directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero have managed to bring off in one of the most impressive revivals of a Shakespeare play that I have seen in recent years. They do this above all by recognizing and accommodating to their vision the ambiguities that lie at the heart of the play so that it is neither a simplistic celebration nor repudiation of war, but a recognition that war is inextricably part of the human condition. It is crucial to Shakespeare’s generosity of mind that the play embraces the fascination and allure of high politics while also showing the consequences of those decisions for the common man and woman as much as the king – the pomp and the pity, the fine line of fear between failure and triumph, survival or death.
The setting in Temple Church could not be more conducive in its resonant layers of English history. Alongside the tombs of Templar knights and the barons who enforced Magna Carta the stage is set in traverse between the church pews. On a raised platform open at either end are placed a scatter of ammunition boxes and medical supplies. Two soldiers enter wearing uniforms from the First World War, one French and one English. Then a French nurse. Familiar struggles of communication follow, ending in the English soldier giving his French counterpart a copy of Shakespeare’s play. We are in an allied field hospital at Azincourt behind the lines, and both contingents agree to put on a performance to pass the time. But before we reach the prologue an accordion and piano introduce George Butterworth’s setting of A.E Housman’s ‘The lads in their hundreds’, and on top of Shakespeare’s inspired rhetoric we also have another resonant layer of chivalric regret, written just before the First World War. This was so apt in so many ways, both dramatic, aesthetic and historical, that it gave me the same jolt of mind-stretching experience that I remember from the Olivier film all those years ago. I can pay no higher compliment to the handling of the opening sequence.
And so then we were into the play itself, but before I discuss the qualities of the production it is worth stressing that the First World War scenario always remains as a point of reference. Further settings of Housman, using the musical style of the Edwardian era, break into the action to distill emotion at key points and the experience of recent conflict intrudes movingly and aptly into performance at significant moments – such as the moment when Bardolph is executed for looting and the actor playing the role collapses in a fit. It is very rare that a company integrates a new concept so thoroughly into a Shakespeare play – too often it is merely gestural – but here the level of attention to detail is hugely impressive and imaginative while still sitting comfortably with the spirit of the original.
As is usual with this company there is a uniformly high standard of individual performance and company ensemble. The transitions between the scenes are very well managed and even though the space is limited the directors have used it very flexibly and with a minimal but imaginative use of props (eg a box of bandages for tennis balls, cake tins for crowns etc..). I wondered how they were going to manage the big battle scene itself but again the bracketing scenario gave the solution in the form of a sudden artillery barrage off-stage, another Housman song and a bugle call.. the moment was captured and registered without needing to be shown.
The constraints of a review prevent me from doing justice to the range of fine performances on offer here, with several actors taking multiple roles. Suffice to say that both the political and comedy scenes came off equally well, which is not always the case by any means in this play. Nor did the nationalistic jostling among the soldiery pall, as sometimes happens. The text was well projected and reinforced with plenty of fluid stage movement, especially in the scenes on the night before the battle when the male camaraderie and joshing nervousness of the original and the modern settings meshed particularly well.
It was a real pleasure to have genuine French speakers playing the French royal roles for a change: there was a genuine, plausible political counter-weight to the English forces, and the rivalry between the Dauphin and the Constable was projected in a way that does not normally happen. Floriane Andersen’s Katherine played delightfully with the linguistic games Shakespeare sets for her, and was more than a match for Freddie Stewart’s Henry V in their courtship scene.
Stewart’s performance possessed many of the qualities needed for success in this role. He was naturally authoritative in the political and public scenes, and in the courtship scene combined flirtatiousness, humour and awkwardness in equal and delightful measure – he has the ‘sugar touch’ to be sure. In the incognito quarrel with Williams (Alex Hooper), crucial to any production of this play, he controlled the tone assuredly and in front of the troops plausibly dispensed more than ‘a little touch of Harry in the night.’
However, I have a reservation over his handling of the famous soliloquies, a reservation that extends more broadly to the way Shakespearean set-pieces are generally delivered at present. While naturalism on stage will take you a long way, it does not work in these highly wrought pieces of rhetoric, which are explicit crystallisations of particular emotions, not descriptions of them. A naturalistic approach ends up shouty and monotonous and not compelling in any meaningful way. The actor really needs to interpret and shape these stylised speeches as if they were pieces of music where you draw the audience into your confidence. While I can understand the reluctance of younger actors to embrace the self-conscious ‘voice beautiful’ in the manner of Olivier and Gielgud, it can still be done without playing false with the rest of one’s characterisation. The older actors in the company – for example Geoffrey Towers (Exeter) and Louise Templeton (Mistress Quickly) showed the way, and in particular Templeton’s evocation of Falstaff’s death was deftly and movingly achieved simply through following and not forcing the natural pace of the text. Sometimes, as Jonathan Bate has said, ‘The key to dramatic art is insincerity.’ Artifice can be made into art, and the audience will happily inhabit that special space in the moment with you….
This is only a minor cavil in what is a totally absorbing theatrical night that made so many of us in the audience think again about this apparently most familiar of plays. I do hope that they have the opportunity here or elsewhere to revive this fine recasting of one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements. As the cast marched off in formation into the dark recesses of the Temple Church towards the recumbent knights one could not separate them any more from the long tradition of chivalry stretching from Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, through Shakespeare’s history plays and down to Housman’s doomed infantry:
‘They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man.
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.’