It’s nearly 40 years since I last saw the RSC do Henry IV and V in one day but the effect then was the effect now. After spending a total of ten hours in a seat, we could almost count ourselves as part of the ‘happy few’.
However, that production was a one-off whereas this time, the events are set firmly in the context of the rest of the plays. But Henry V is slightly different from the others: the rows between the nobility are put to one side; there’s just one brief, putative attempt at rebellion and the rest of the time is spent on that old-fashioned English habit: bashing the French.
If there’s a theme to this series of plays, it is that, following Machiavelli’s strictures, it’s better to be feared than loved. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Henry is a man on a mission – that of expiating his past sins: Jonathan Slinger’s worldy-wise Fluellen is right, the vigour with which he rejects his past is on a par with that of Alexander killing his oldest friend. Streatfeild invests this Henry with little humanity; every muscle strains to prove himself a tough monarch. Never more so than ordering the death of the French prisoners – and seeing them being burned alive within their prisons - in a chilling echo of Oradour-sur-Glane.
There are some resonant images: the streamers representing the flights of the arrows; the coffins of the French dead piled on stage; the French court, boasting of armour and horses – its finery and sybaritism echo of that of Richard II’s court and offer us a stark contrast to the dull, metallic grey of the English soldiery. Forbes Masson’s Chorus, with his references to the Roundhouse, quickly pulls us into the action, which continues at a cracking pace.
Most recent productions have preferred to portray Henry as an arch-manipulator, someone prepared to go to war for the sake of political gain, in contrast to the patriotic Henry, still best represented by Olivier’s firm. Boyd doesn’t go down either of these paths – this Henry fights because it’s his way of proving his kingly qualities. By placing it in the heart of the history cycle, Boyd ensures that we see the forces that shape the king but also have a glimpse of the power vacuum that his death will create.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from November 2007 and these productions' original run at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The concluding instalment in Michael Boyd's complete Histories cycle is too often given over to 'jaw-jaw', rather than 'war-war'. That this is so is more a criticism of the play itself than the production. It does mean, however, that for too much of the evening one is left fearing that this epic journey will fall very flat at the last.
The cycle’s final episode is one which, despite the best efforts of a strong cast and staging that makes full and imaginative use of the theatre, labours to get up any head of steam at all. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Archbishop of Canterbury's interminable justification of Henry's right to the French crown.
Boyd wisely plays this for laughs, and his deftness of touch pays similar dividends later on in the play in the scene in which Henry woos Lady Katharine. Before we get there though, or even reach France, the going proves hard. There's the death of Falstaff, unseen, for one thing. And Henry's confrontation of the traitors within his court is, with that fist pump, more Henman than He-Man.
Once we do reach France, however, the production goes up through the gears. A massive explosion pitches us straight into the thick of war. The English army burst out of the ground and Henry launches into, "Once more into the breach dear friends". This is an army for whom war is bloody, earthbound graft. The French nobles, by contrast, are suspended on trapezes above the stage, from which they swoop down when the battle begins.
It's a brilliant conceit and one which bodies forth the French nobles' attitude towards armed conflict. The contrast between the two forces - one labouring in and below the ground, the other gracefully and disdainfully passing to and fro above - also lifts, literally, the production out of the trudge it has largely been hitherto.
Geoffrey Streatfeild also gains in stature, stirring enough in the St Crispin's Day speech, but better in the quieter, stiller passages, where he reveals Henry's detachment and pensiveness. There’s a fine turn from Jonathan Slinger as Fluellen and good work by John McKay as the Dauphin, but this is very much an ensemble production in which there are many strong performances and no significant weak ones. Tribute too to designer Tom Piper.
An uneven evening then, but one with delights as well as doldrums.
- Pete Wood (reviewed at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Courtyard Theatre)