The Globe Theatre, London’s touring production of Shakespeare’s Henry V, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, has much to recommend it. It is stylishly designed by Jonathan Fensom, set in the early 15th century, full of humorous touches, gives us a complex Henry and has an outstanding comic performance from Brendan O’Hea as the Welshman, Fluellen, obsessed with discipline, in love with his own runaway tongue and unable to resist a classical allusion.
Jamie Parker’s performance as the king emphasizes his decency and sensitivity, his understanding of the pity of war. He is insistent that the Archbishop of Canterbury be honest in his justification of his claim to France; right and conscience matter to him. In France he wants his men to behave mercifully. We register his deep emotion after he sends the traitors to their deaths, his sincerity as he tells the men he visits on the eve of Agincourt that ‘he would not wish himself anywhere but here’, his overwhelming emotion as he prays to the God of battles. It is clear he feels deeply the pressures of kingship. But he’s also a little dull, a reasonable posh boy who wants to do the right thing but lacks charisma and passion. The St. Crispin’s day speech is played as an intimate chat with a select few, but it seems to leave them thinking, not ready to kill as many Frenchmen as possible. This is presumably a directorial decision, an anti-heroic, low-key reading of the play, but I was not convinced it worked; it lacked the energy and satiric power of Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 National Theatre production, for instance. It may be that Henry V is one of those plays that, like The Taming of the Shrew and the Merchant of Venice (though to a lesser extent), poses problems for modern directors (though perhaps not audiences) in that its values can seem so at odds with theirs. And, as Frank Kermode says, it is a play that is “in many respects unloveable”.
There is able support from Brid Brennan as Chorus, Nigel Cooke as the Duke of Exeter and Kurt Egyiewan as the Dauphin and Lord Scroop, though some of the minor characters leave little impression. The battle scenes are played with verve; the archers are a particularly impressive example of less being more. The music, played on a variety of Elizabethan instruments, is lovely, though for the third time in as many months I felt that a song and dance number was tacked on at the end of a show unnecessarily and partly designed to get the audience clapping more vigorously than they otherwise might. It’s an unwelcome habit more and more productions are indulging in.