"Erewego, erewego, erewego"...it's England in a real humdinger of an away fixture. And what a blinder, an away win in France, that's 1-0 to England.
Edward Hall's production of Henry V shows the king as the master of a rag-tag of yobs and hoodlums, ready to run amok in France. Given that during Euro 2000 last year, there were several MPs who said that the football hooligans should be applauded as the spiritual descendents of the victors of Agincourt, it's not too far-fetched a thesis.
Rather than seeing the play as a triumphal shout of English nationalism, however, Hall takes the opportunity to question what it means to be English. And Henry himself, is not the glorious warrior king of Shakespeare's invention but a shrewd, political manipulator ready to catch the tide of nationalism and exploit it for his own purposes. He presides over a court where the Dauphin's title is willfully mispronounced and where the Marseillaise is mocked.
We see a king being reinvented before our eyes as he strives to cast off the yoke of his dissolute past and present himself as a fearsome fighter in the middle part of the play. It's telling that the order to kill the French prisoners is left in, many productions omit this slur on Henry's reputation, but in this outing, is a Henry not afraid to shirk tough decisions.
And Hall is not afraid to stage a long version of Shakespeare's tragedy. Often, the opening scene (between the two bishops) is left out, but by including it, Hall places Henry's reconstruction of himself in context. He also places an emphasis on Henry's willingness to learn and consult. The Constable's words "how well supplied with noble counsellors", and Exeter's comparison between the "promise of his greener days" and "how he weighs time/even to the utmost grain," stress this.
But this is one of the strengths of the This England series. The whole mammoth cycle shows how the English nobility was a tinderbox of petty jealousies, and it's only Henry's strength as king that stops it igniting.
This production seems to lose its way in the second half. The loutish, beer-swilling punks have become a devoutly religious band of warriors ready to sing hymns over the dead. Where have they got this new-found respect for the French dead? It's certainly not from their ruthless king, who's desperate to play the xenophobe card at every opportunity.
However, a huge plus point is William Houston's Henry. He commands attention whenever he is on the stage; an arch-manipulator maybe, but a brilliant leader of men. And in the final scene, with the French princess Katherine, he is wonderfully gauche. He's well supported too: by Alexis Daniel's imperious Dauphin, Adrian Schiller's strutting Fluellen and Richard Bremner's bombastic Pistol. There are some good songs by Billy Bragg, too.
Hall's Henry V is not quite as good as the previous This England productions, but it's still a thought-provoking spectacle that makes one itch for the next part of the series.
Note: This review dates from the production's original run in Stratford.
This is a magnificent production - as noisy, violent, barbaric and complex as the war it depicts. Director Edward Hall sets his Henry V in the year 2000, just as Shakespeare set the medieval conflict in his own present day. It tells the story of the invasion of France by the soldier-king, intent on conquest. It's a war play first and last, and this production sacrifices the beauty of the verse to give us a searing insight into the brutalising experience of army life.
Hall's production reveals a play with two protagonists - the king and the army. William Houston seems much more at home as King Henry V than he did as Prince Hal. His authority and determination are never in question; his humanity emerges only when political and military necessity permit him that luxury. He doesn't hesitate to have his old drinking companion Bardolph executed for looting. Discipline requires it.
But the real triumph of this production is the depiction of the army. As part of the rehearsal process, the cast spent time with the Army Training Regiment, and it shows. United against the enemy, the soldiers bicker between themselves. English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish rivalries flare and the soldiers' sense of national identity is as uncertain and complex as Britons' support for their four national football teams.
Pistol (Richard Bremmer) wears an England shirt and the Geordie Nym (Joe Renton) Newcastle United's. Indeed, the army has the unfocused patriotic swagger of football fans in the early scenes when they embark and first arrive in France. This mood is beautifully captured in a couple of soldiers' songs especially composed for this production by Billy Bragg. But all this disappears as soon as they get down to the serious business of war - the killing and the dying.
Bragg's splendid songs are sung on stage by the actors; the musicians in the gallery are dressed in army band uniforms and perform a range of music arranged by Simon Slater which includes 'Non, je ne regrette rien' for the French camp and 'Thank heaven for little girls' for the Princess of France (Catherine Walker). These touches of wit and playfulness punctuate the harsh realities of military life and add further subtlety to this multi-layered picture.
Designer Michael Pavelka provides a suitably intricate metallic set which acts as a formidable engine of war. Ben Ormerod's lighting and Matt McKenzie's sound create a sense of total theatre. But the spectacular effects of battle never displace the moral centre of gravity of the play.
Shakespeare provides us with no easy answers to the problems of war. As Hall's production clearly shows, this is neither an anti-war play nor a glorification of battle. It's much more difficult, confused and equivocal than that, and much more human.
Henry V opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 31 August 2000 (previews from 24 August) and continued there in repertory until 7 October 2000.