HENRY V Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


This is the crown, the final flourish of Gregory Doran’s magnificently rendered history cycle. We have seen preening emotional Richard , troubled Henry IV declinging as his roistering son hits the whorehouses with Sir John Falstaff ; seen that Hal – Alex Hassall, who carries on the role here – fighting off Hotspur and at last attaining the “polished perturbation” of the crown. Poor Falstaff is gone now, babbling of green fields on his deathbed; his band of rogues join young Henry V in the battlefields of France.
It is a troublesome play in some ways, famous for the great Agincourt speeches and feeding (as a mischievous programme-note by Jeremy Paxman observes) a warlike patriotism, a legend in which England forever stands alone, outnumbered and gallant. Technically, it flits from place to place with a Chorus figure between scenes. It is often fiercely cut. But not here: in three hours of crystalline intelligence and thoughtful detail, Doran and his cast give us something marvellous, not macho but both mocking and understanding of the timeless terrible business of war. His Chorus is Oliver Ford Davies, grandfatherly modern in drooping cardigan, wandering through scenes which freeze into ghosthood as he tell us the story and enjoins us to imagine a dim heroic past for ourselves.

The production’s pace is judged to a hair, combining sharp comedy with a deep seriousness, turning from one to the other in half a breath sometimes. For instance as the bloodstained, exhausted young King hears that the battle is won and the day is ours, a thread of birdsong brings tears to his eyes as he sinks to his knees in prayer. And the Welsh braggart Fluellen (Joshua Richards) allows barely a second before starting to prattle about his countrymen’s valour and contribution, as Hal rolls his eyes tolerantly. Nonsense about leeks nudges alongside a great choral Te Deum; on the very battlefield, when we have just seen the young King steeling himself, alone, to “imitate the action of a tiger”, there is a meeting of officers in an absurdity of accents: a huge farouche Irish McMorris with a heavy brogue and Fluellen with his Kinnockian verbosity each staring nervously at the incomprehensible barks of the Scot Jamy (Simon Yadoo, take a bow).

To home in on such detail is not irrelevant: a great beauty of this production is Doran’s retention of many moments often cut, right from the start where the Archbishop discourses tediously on Salic law for five minutes to justify the English claim to France. Here, its sly usefulness is in allowing Hassell to show in his face how very new this kingly, political responsibility is to him, and how unsure of it he still is. “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” he asks, almost hopelessly; but his laddish pride tips over when the Dauphin sends him tennis-balls and pop-up mailed fist making a V-sign.

The story, through all the pathos, comedy, martial moments and heroic legend, is a coming-of-age one. At first I was concerned that Alex Hassell, so beguiling as Prince Hal, was less comfortable with the language and manner of kingly formality. But then, a new King would be, fresh from Falstaff’s party world: and as the war develops Hassell gives usa real and moving sense of a young man struggling to become a leader. A young man burdened, too, with the inherited remorse of his father’s usurpation of the crown from Richard: Doran gives us absolute acceptance of the religiosity. This Henry prays, and means it, and fears doing wrong. His scene in disguise among the soldiers makes your neck-hairs stand on end: a deep felt chilling silence ensues as he recognizes his responsiblity for the blood of common soldiers. The St Crispin’s day speech is stirring, authoritative rising to oratory, as ever; but more moving still is his moment of lonely prayer, like Nelson’s, to the God of Battles.

Details, grace-notes emerge every moment from a strong ensemble: Robert Gilbert as a foppish blow-dried Dauphin wickedly contrasts with the battered Hal; Antony Byrne’s oafish Pistol throws a surprise punch and is battered by a leek; odd understage uplights in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ bare beautiful set create subtle shifts of mood. And the merry political coda, the wooing of Katherine by a Hal grown young and unsure again, sees the women matching up to it: Jennifer Kirby playful and icy by turns as the princess, and Jane Lapotaire drily, grievingly, resignedly queenly. It’s the hardest of the history plays to do well. And this is done magnificently.
0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 16 nov (then to Barbican in Dec)

rating   FIVE 5 Meece Rating


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