Henry V – January 2008

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 19th January 2008

Cast changes today – Patrice Naiambana played Chorus instead of Forbes Masson, and Matt Costain played Orlean instead of Kieran Hill. Given these indispositions, it may  be that the comments at Winter School about lacklustre performances have their basis in illness. God knows, we audience members have been suffering, so it’s not too surprising if the cast have had their problems as well.

You may be wondering at what point a production/performance earns a ten-star rating. Well, it varies, but today it was about two minutes into the opening speech. Eschewing the customary request to turn off mobiles, we went straight into the opening Chorus. After some silent sword practise, Chorus begged for “A muse of fire” and gave us a very expressive rendition of the speech, including a slight amendment. Instead of asking if “this wooden O” could do the biz in representing the field of Agincourt, he asked if “this rusty shed” could do the job. Massive hilarity (the Courtyard theatre is, indeed, a rusty shed, though as nice a rusty shed as one could wish for).

Fortunately this change, although well received, didn’t bring the shed down, and next up was the chat between two churchmen about how to avoid losing a lot of the churches’ wealth to the crown. Apparently the strategy is to pay the king lots of money, which kind of misses the point – these two just wouldn’t cut it as tax dodgers. They head off for an important meeting, allowing the King and his advisers to enter and start the discussion that is central to the whole play. Does Harry have any right to claim France as his own, or not? If he does, it means war, lots of deaths and possible defeat, or victory, glory and money. If he doesn’t, we all go home early. We already know the Archbishop of Canterbury is inclined to advise the King to go to war, as then he can offer to help financially and get off the tax bill, so it’s no surprise when he does just that. Before this, when the King enters, Lord Scroop was carrying his crown, and offers it to him. Harry doesn’t want to wear it at that time, so Scroop keeps it during this discussion. When we get to the arrival of the French ambassador, then Harry puts it on, indicating to me that he still has some reservations about his kingship, and keeps the formal show for formal occasions.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop has been explaining that Salic law, which the French have been saying bars Harry from the French crown, applies only to lands in Germany, and that many French nobles and kings have claimed their titles through the female line, validating Harry’s claim. Only he doesn’t say it anything like as quickly (60+ lines). It’s a lovely performance from Geoffrey Freshwater, expressing the boring tedious detail clearly while still making it funny. There were several laughter points during his long speech, especially when he says “So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun”, given the fog of confusion we were all in by that time. Harry listens to it all patiently, and the further arguments of his lords, and clearly decides to go ahead with claiming France.

Now is the time to hear the French ambassador. He arrives through the doors at the back (this is unusual for the French – see later), and delivers the message from the Dauphin. (Although it’s often pronounced as “Dolphin”, they didn’t do it that way this time.) A large box descends from the heavens, carrying the tennis balls the Dauphin has sent in jest – a bitter jest as it will turn out. Harry gets really angry, and opens the box by striking it with his sword. All the balls fall out, covering the stage, and Harry tells the ambassador to tell the Dauphin where to shove it. He leaves, and the English prepare for war.

I’m always worried when there are lots of potential leg-breakers scattered about the stage, and the tennis balls definitely qualified. I also get a little worried that it’s going to take ages to get them all off (health and safety) and the momentum will be lost. This time, Chorus and two helpers brought on very wide brooms, and with a united front, swept most of the balls from the front to the back of the stage. It didn’t take long, and didn’t clear up all the balls either, but it helped, and at the end of it, Chorus was able to step forward for his next speech. In this, he tells us of the English preparations, the French concerns, the English traitors ready to kill the king, and that the next location is Southampton. As he tells us of the traitors, they step forward at the front of the stage, and I realised that Scroop, the crown-carrier, is one of them. For me, this brought home the degree of treachery far more than words alone, although Harry will use plenty of those to express his feelings later. Scroop’s closeness to the king, and the level of trust the king placed in him, were exemplified by his role as crown bearer, and for him to change allegiance means something has gone terribly wrong in Harry’s England. Today, I saw that Harry’s own actions before becoming king, his rowdy youth and dissipation, have contributed to this treachery, as few people have any faith that he will turn out to be a good king. Plus this continues the theme of king-killing and civil war that will become so familiar down the road. So for once, this scene made sense on a lot of levels. I recognised Harry’s unexpressed offer of mercy if the traitors show any themselves towards a prisoner. It reminded me of the courtroom scene in The Merchant Of Venice. They don’t advocate mercy, and so their fate is sealed. For this scene, Harry was sitting roughly centre stage on a crate and fiddling with an arrow, with the three lords in front of him. At one point, when the king had moved closer to them, they moved forward as if to kill him then and there, but he’d already moved back out of their reach, so their attempted assassination was thwarted.

I’ve run these two scenes together because of their connection, but the actual performance, and the text, have another scene between Chorus and the king. It begins at the end of Chorus’s speech, when Bardolph runs on at the back to relieve himself against the metal drum. (I think it was a physical need rather than artistic comment on the set.) In this scene we meet Pistol again, and Nym, who are at odds because Pistol has married Mistress Quickly, who also appears in the scene. I have to say I found much of this scene unintelligible. To show why, here is a small snippet of the dialogue:

Nym   Will you shog off? I would have you solus.

Pistol “Solus”, egregious dog? O viper vile!

The solus in thy most marvellous face,

The solus in thy teeth, and in thy throat,

And in thy hateful lungs, yea in thy maw pardie—

And which is worse, within thy nasty mouth.

Any suggestions? Bear in mind I don’t have an editor’s notes to hand during the performance. Admittedly, this is the worst bit I could find in my text, and there were some good bits. For example, Keith Dunphy portrays Nym as a depressed sort, with not too much weight to carry between his ears. This contrasted nicely with Nicholas Asbury’s rowdy Pistol, and the two finally come to some sort of accommodation with each other, mainly through Bardolph reminding them there’s a war to fight. Maureen Beattie’s Mistress Quickly keeps hovering on the border of good taste – the wrong side of the border, that is. She inserted a delicious pause in the lines

“for we cannot lodge

and board a dozen or fourteen gentlewomen that live

honestly by the prick of their needles,”

after the word “prick”, which got a good laugh. So the time was not wasted after all.

Following this was the discovery of the traitors, and then the Eastcheap boys are back to describe the death of Falstaff. I didn’t get much from this scene in terms of the dialogue, but I do remember thinking that Pistol is, in effect, taking over from Falstaff as the chief rogue of the crew.

Now to France, in an environmentally friendly way – no air miles for us. Three trapezes descend from the lofty ceiling, while the King of France himself appears on the balcony with a couple of attendants. The trapezes were necessary as the French court’s tailor (aka the wardrobe department) had seen fit to add excessively long tails to their coats, making it impossible for them to walk anywhere without tripping over their clothes. This created a nice popinjay effect, added to by the way that they casually swept up their tails and carried them over their arms from time to time. When the Dauphin (John Mackay) did come down to earth, and stood with his back to us, he looked for all the world just like a 1930s starlet in some glamorous evening dress, with his curly blond hair and sweeping train. The only down side to these costumes was that the lord nearest to us was in line with the king, and when his tails hung down, we couldn’t see what was happening on the balcony. But it’s a small price to pay for such a striking visual effect.

During this scene, the Dauphin comes across as an effete youngster, full of himself and the glory of the French court, and treating Henry with contempt. The Constable of France (Antony Bunsee) however, is a shrewder individual, who has picked up on what the ambassadors have told them of Henry. Perhaps the French king, with an echo of Henry IV, will find himself regretting that he didn’t have a different son and heir once the war is over.

The messenger from England is the Duke of Exeter (Miles Richardson). He brings a stern message to the French king – get off the throne, or else, backed up with a detailed pedigree which he hands to one of the lords on trapezes. It’s ironic that Henry V is telling another king that he’s a usurper, when many in England, and even more in his son’s time, will say that about his family’s claim to England’s crown. This is yet another example of the way in which Shakespeare is constantly comparing and contrasting his historical characters throughout these plays, and these all make Michael Boyd’s interpretation both more interesting and more valid. Anyway, this scene is good at setting up the tensions between the sides, and showing the Dauphin’s readiness to fight as well as suggesting his complete inability to make a good job of it.

Now Chorus has some more work to do, and takes over 25 lines to tell us that Henry’s sailed to France, and is now besieging Harfleur. More to the point, the French king has made an opening bid of his daughter’s hand in marriage and some minor dukedoms, and Henry’s said “no”. With the line “and the nimble gunner With linstock now the devilish cannon touches”, there are some loud bangs, several trapdoors are flung open on stage, and Henry comes on to inspire us all to go back to the beach. Sorry, breach. It’s a rousing speech, and I certainly felt included in the ranks of the listening troops, though thankfully I didn’t have to fight.

After this morning’s talk by Nicola Watson, I was much more aware of the use of Pistol, Bardolph and the rest as a counterpoint to Henry. Bardolph’s first line is “On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!”, a rather half-hearted imitation of the king. He doesn’t inspire much in his hearers, and it’s not till Fluellen comes along and chivvies them back to the action that they go, leaving the boy to tell us what a bunch of rogues they all are. I feel sorry for this lad. He was given to Falstaff by Prince Hal, and now he’s been taken over by Pistol and the others, and dragged off to war. Perhaps Henry really does think war a noble enterprise, or perhaps he’s just forgotten the lad, but I can’t help feeling he could have looked out for him a bit better. The boy himself wants to get away from them as he’s not keen on a life of crime, but alas, too late.

Now the next scene is a difficult one, and I still can’t claim to know what it’s about. I liked the performances well enough, but it feels too much like a joke about a Welshman, an Irishman, a Scotsman and an Englishman, only without the punchline. Fluellen is obviously a man who has studied the accounts of historical battles a great deal – his production of a large book while on the battlefield shows how obsessed he is with the subject – but how this relates to the other characters I have no idea. I will pay closer attention when we see it another time, in the hope of learning more.

The next scene is interesting. Henry addresses the governor of Harfleur, threatening all sort of dire consequences if he doesn’t hand over the town at once. He goes into a lot of detail, while taking care to suggest that the rape and killing would be entirely because his soldiers lost their cool, and nothing to do with him. Bit cheeky, that. In any case, the governor’s reply suggests that Henry could have saved his breath, and his 43 lines, as the town is only too ready to surrender. I guess this scene just shows how ruthless Henry’s prepared to be. Of course, when I’m watching it, I get as carried away with the wonderful words as the next man, and it all seems to make perfect sense – this RSC house writer certainly has a way with words. I can’t make up my mind whether, if he was around today, Shakespeare would be a highly paid Hollywood script writer, or speech writer to US presidents. Or possibly both.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Katherine, the French king’s daughter, is showing good foresight by taking an English lesson from her maid. It’s a lovely little scene, especially as I know enough French to be able to follow most of it, and these two ladies did it very well. Katherine was suitably pouty at being corrected by her maid, when she’s convinced she’s an excellent student. The exchange lightens the tone nicely, as we’re about to have some really tough scenes, with actual deaths.

Elsewhere in the palace, the king is discussing the situation with his courtiers, and after insulting the English invaders, they get down to business. All the French lords are sent off to tackle the English troops, but the dauphin is told to stay at home with the king, which really annoyed him. He flounced off beautifully in a temper. (Girls will be girls.)

Now Gower and Fluellen are at it again, discussing what’s going on in the fighting, which is elsewhere as it happens. Not that I wish to call these chaps cowards, or anything…. Along comes Pistol, to inform us that Bardolph is to be hanged, and to ask Fluellen to speak up for him, which he refuses to do as discipline is important to him. Pistol heads off in a temper, after passing some choice insults, and Gower and Fluellen get a chance to talk of those knaves who brag about what they’ve done in war, without having actually gone to the trouble of doing it. Pretend war heroes.

The king turns up, and is told of Bardolph’s pending execution. Again, he has to make a choice, and although it’s difficult, he sticks with the kingly role –“We would have all such offenders so cut off”. The French herald turns up again, and delivers some fighting talk. Harry’s response is interesting. He appears to give away too much information by saying that he doesn’t particularly want to fight at the moment, thanks very much, then brags about his troops when they’re fit and well, then accuses the French of being braggarts, then basically ends up by saying, come on then if you think you’re hard enough! Oh and he makes it clear there’ll be no ransom. It’s an intriguing combination of ideas, making him look straightforward, sensible, and capable of handling whatever’s thrown his way. At the end of this scene, as the king leaves the stage, he and we see Bardolph and Nym hanging behind the open doors, and that’s the end of the first half.

To start the second half we get one of the funniest scenes of the whole play, and there aren’t a lot of those to be had in this one. The French, languidly dangling on their trapezes, are waiting for day to break so they can go and kill themselves some Englishmen. That’s if they can find any to kill, because most will probably run off, and there are so few of them anyway, most Frenchmen won’t get a chance if they’re not quick. They pass the time discussing armour and horses, and the dauphin demonstrates rather too much fondness for his horse. Writing poetry in praise of one’s steed is probably over the top in most social circles, and from the reactions of the Constable of France and Orleans, it’s certainly not something to shout about in the French Court. After the dauphin heads off to put on his armour, they bitch about him beautifully, and after a messenger has told them how close the English are, they start champing at the bit to get at them. They even put on some Lancashire accents to make fun of their opponents – very amusing. Their manner was just so contemptuous that it made the whole scene very enjoyable. The dauphin was neighing to emphasise his horse’s attributes, and the Constable caught the bug. He found himself saying “naaaaay” at one point, and looked so disgusted with himself. (Couldn’t find it in the text, presumably an addition.)

Now the play’s spin doctor, Chorus, gets going again with a detailed description of the pre-battle line up. Suitably warmed up, we see Henry conferring with his brothers, and then taking Erpingham’s cloak so he can wander about anonymously among his troops. Firstly he meets Pistol, or rather Pistol emerges from one of the trapdoors. When Pistol finds out that Harry Le Roy is kinsman to Fluellen, he makes a rude gesture and heads off. Not the best of starts for the undercover king.

Next, Fluellen and Gower come on, and Harry listens in. Fluellen is concerned that their camp should be quieter, so that the French won’t overhear them. When Gower points out that French aren’t holding back the noise, Fluellen responds that if the French want to make asses of themselves is that any reason why the English should join in?  A good point, and applicable in many situations. Then three other soldiers come on stage. Harry disputes with them the king’s responsibility for his soldiers’ deaths, and gets into a particular argument with Williams, played by Lex Shrapnel. Echoes of Hotspur to the fore. They exchange gloves, agreeing to challenge each other after the battle, if they both live.

After the soldiers leave, Harry talks us through the burdens of a king. It’s a bit like his father’s complaint when he was having trouble sleeping, but Harry goes into greater detail. This was well delivered, but still I can’t help feeling Harry’s glossing over the problems that other people have, in order to concentrate on and amplify his own. Still, it confirms that he’s not fully comfortable with his kingship yet, although he’s definitely accepted the role of soldier. When Erpingham finds him, he has time for a prayer, which lets us know how much he’s doing to gain pardon for Richard’s death, and then  he’s off to lead his troops into battle.

The next scene in my text shows the French preparing to fight, which I don’t remember clearly at this time, and then we have the build-up to the most rousing speech in Shakespeare. With his captains all talking about the opposition’s strength, and Westmoreland rashly wishing for more troops on their side, Harry comes along and gives us his inspirational “St Crispin’s day” speech. It’s a really good piece of motivational speaking; well, it gets me going, anyway. This time, I wasn’t so aware of the words, more of the emotional sense and the effect the speech has on others. It was lower key than some I’ve heard, but more in keeping with this performance of Henry. It certainly has the desired effect on his men, and after another long rebuke to the French herald, they get down to some serious fighting.

The first sign that the England team might be winning is the arrival of Pistol, the boy and a French noble whom Pistol is attempting to take as his prisoner. The language barrier is proving a bit of a problem, though, and the boy helps out here, having a smattering of French. They do a deal, and head off, leaving the boy to comment on Pistol’s knavery and the lack of protection for the English luggage.

Now the French nobles are running away, having found the English too strong. One noble is determined to fight on, but the rest melt away in shame. Even so, when Henry arrives back on stage, to learn of his brother’s death, and that of Suffolk, the battle’s not completely over, as the French troops have rallied. Henry gives the order for all the French prisoners to be killed, and then it’s back into the action again.

It may have been before or after this scene that we see the boy being killed, as the French attack the luggage. I remember Henry seeing his body as he comes on stage, and being deeply affected. I suspect it happened just before his line “I was not angry since I came to France until this moment.” Either way, he really is in a temper, and ready to lash out at anyone. Not a good time for the French herald to come calling, then. Fortunately, he’s not asking for a surrender this time, he’s asking for leave to collect the French dead and wounded, and this stops Henry’s anger in its tracks. He now seems tired, and unsure of the situation, as he asks who’s won the fight. He is very clear that they had God’s help to do it, and stops for a quick prayer before the comic interlude.

Fluellen is busy reminding the king that his grandfather had fought well in France, and the king is happy to agree, when he catches sight of Williams, wearing the glove he gave him. Henry calls him over and asks about the glove, getting Williams to explain the circumstances, and Fluellen to support Williams’s determination to fight. All quite innocent at the moment. But, after sending Williams off to fetch his captain, Gower, Henry asks Fluellen to wear the other glove, telling him he picked it up during the battle, that it belonged to Alençon, and that anyone who challenges him is a supporter of Alençon and an enemy. Fluellen readily accepts the glove, and the honour that he sees going with the task, and is also sent off to fetch Gower. Henry sends his brother and Warwick after him, to make sure no harm comes to anyone, and follows on after them all. I have no idea why he does this, other than to prevent Williams having to accost the king, which would be embarrassing all round. I suspect it had greater meaning in Will’s time, but at least it came across clearly in terms of what’s going on, even if the why is still vague.

Naturally enough, Fluellen and Williams spot each other and come to blows, or at least nasty words, but Warwick and then the king come along before anyone’s injured. Henry’s challenge to Williams to explain his actions the night before is quite a strong one – he looks like he’s not prepared to forgive and forget that a common soldier had the nerve to treat him the way he did – but Williams mounts a good defence, pointing out that the king was in disguise, and so it’s all his own fault. Said more tactfully, perhaps, but that’s the gist. Henry likes his answer, and gives him money, which Fluellen adds to by another shilling, a bit cheeky I always think. This is the same streak in Henry that we saw in the tavern scenes when he’s baiting Frances, the drawer, to say “Anon, anon, sir”, and it’s not his most attractive side, but at least he recognises the consequences of his actions, and isn’t arbitrarily punishing others for his choices.

Next we hear the roll call of the dead. I find this a moving speech, and here it’s clear that Henry is moved as well, as much by the French losses as the English. As they leave, and Chorus fills in the gaps before Henry meets with the French King (back to London, rapturous welcome, back again to France), the cast bring on coffins, wooden boxes which they place in rows so that they can place a platform over them. I realised what they were doing, and thought it was an interesting point, to see the peace being forged over the dead bodies of the English who fell in battle.

First we see Fluellen forcing Pistol to eat a leek, and then the French court assembles on the platform for the final scenes. It isn’t long before the French king leaves with the English nobles, to sort out the details of the peace treaty, leaving Henry and Katherine to be watched over by Alice. I often think Henry’s speeches at this time are a contradiction. He says he’s no good at wooing speeches, but goes on at great length in flowery terms, which makes him seem a bit of a liar. This time, Henry does come across as a soldier with no great resources in rhetoric, who really would be happier “vaulting into [his] saddle with [his] armour on his back”. Katherine is won over, though rather shocked about being asked to kiss Henry before they’re married, and all ends happily. Chorus adds the finishing touch by informing us that in the next Henry’s reign it would all be lost again, and so the cycle both ends and begins.

It was great to finally see this key production in the cycle, and to have all the threads drawn together so well. I can see why Geoffrey Streatfeild found it easier to play Prince Hal after getting this play under his belt, as it answers so many questions. It was great fun, and I hope we can see it again sometime.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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