Henry V – November 2011

9/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th November 2011

A typical Propeller production, this – lots of energy, good music, a clear telling of a trimmed down story, and some lovely touches in the performances. Even though it’s early in the tour, the performances were well established, and the whole evening was powerful and very enjoyable.

The set was very familiar – all of the metal framework from Richard III was in place, along with the balcony-on-wheels, but we didn’t get the plastic sheets or hospital trolleys this time. Instead there were large wooden boxes, a pair of wheelie steps and a couple of punching bags either side for the second half. They also brought on a bath for the first scene with Katherine, just after the interval – her maid had to sign for it – and there were thrones and chairs, etc. as needed.

The performance began with the cast all done up in modern military gear tramping through the auditorium, singing a song. Like a bunch of soldiers arriving at a temporary shelter, they sat around the stage having a well-earned break. Then one of them, given a crown out of one of the boxes, started the play’s opening chorus – ‘O for a muse of fire’ – and we were off. The cast shared the chorus work, which gave us all a chance to not only see each actor but hear his voice too. For the first scene, two of the soldiers put on clerical robes, and with still grimy faces gave us the conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. After this, I think there was a song to cover the cast changing the set slightly, and then Henry himself appeared for the first time. I hadn’t seen Dugald Bruce-Lockhart in the opening bit, and since he also disappeared off before the closing lines of the play, it made me think that the soldiers, who were enacting the play in their break between skirmishes, had invoked the ghost of King Henry, the epitome of the heroic military leader, to complete their cast.

The discussion with the clerics was quick and pretty much to the point, and with the defence of the kingdom sorted, we could settle down to watch the French ambassador. He was very haughty, wore a scarf so we would know he was French, and carried a wooden box, holding it high as he came in and stood in front of Henry. The king used the slighting ‘dolphin’ pronunciation, and was clearly goaded by the references to his wayward past. He managed to control himself, though, which was just as well, because the floor of the stage was soon covered in tennis balls – a few even escaped into the auditorium – and he could have given himself a nasty injury if he’d let his anger get the better of him.

However, before the balls arrived, the ambassador, emphasising the correct way to say ‘dauphin’, offered the wooden box to the king, claiming it contained ‘treasure’. Henry signalled his uncle to inspect the box, and as the actor playing Exeter is on the short side, there’s a lovely moment when the ambassador, realising that Exeter won’t be able to see into the box, lowered it down for him. Exeter took the box, and as he poured out the ‘treasure’, two big bins full of tennis balls were emptied from the balcony onto the stage. Henry was livid, and soon we were off to war with the French.

There was a brief attempt at ball-clearing during the next chorus bit, but plenty still remained on stage for the rest of the first half. As the chorus introduced them, we were shown the three traitors, and then the discovery of their plot. One of the three had a hip flask, into which a chorus member put several drops of a liquid, which we naturally assumed was poison. This flask was offered to the king, but Exeter, knowing of the plot, indicated that he shouldn’t drink it. The ‘commissions’ given to the three men were in manila folders, and their execution was swift and nicely staged. After Exeter arrested them, tearing off their epaulets in the process, they were taken up to the balcony area, made to kneel, and were then blindfolded. Meanwhile a wooden stump was brought on to the front of the stage, and a man wearing a black executioner’s mask came on with an axe. When all three were ready, he swung once at the block, burying the axe in it, while all three traitors slumped as one up above. After the gore-fest of Richard III, this was simpler and very effective. Henry snatched up the axe and held it while giving us the closing lines of the scene.

The next scene combined the two on either side of the traitors’ discovery, and started with London Calling and the shaking of many a beer can (they like it messy). The argument between Pistol and Nym was still pretty incomprehensible, as usual, and Mistress Quickly didn’t have much to say, while Falstaff was completely expunged, which is fair enough as he’s not really relevant to this play on its own. When Pistol left, he gave his Nell a red heart, which she treasured.

Now to France, and to inform us of the change of scene, the cast sang Chanson D’Amour – very entertaining, and some of the audience were joining in by this time. The French king, played by John Dougall, was a gloomy personality, not keen to do anything in haste, and the previous French experience at Crecy was clearly preying on his mind. The Dauphin was also clearly fed up with this old story, turning away from the king and mouthing ‘Crecy’ when he could see the subject coming up, yet again! The messenger who brought news of the English ambassadors spoke with a strong English regional accent (forget which one) and I remember him saying more lines than I have in my text – don’t know what happened there.

When Exeter turned up, he was accompanied by another soldier who stood on top of the wheelie steps holding a scroll which he unfurled at the appropriate moment. It was a long scroll, and all we could see was ‘Edward III’ in large letters at the top, and ‘Henry V’ in equally large letters at the bottom – the details were too faint to make out. When passing on Henry’s message to the Dauphin, Exeter marched over and stood nose to chin – the Dauphin was slightly taller – and delivered the speech right in his face. The French king was reluctant to commit himself at this point, while there was a strong reaction, from the Dauphin at least, to the news that Henry was already in France.

More chorus work, and the soldiers delivered a lot of the lines crouched behind a couple of wooden shields. The ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech was OK, and then Bardolph, Pistol, Nym and the boy were left behind in the rush for the battle. After Fluellen caught them, there was a pause moment – the other characters held their positions while the boy told us what villains and knaves his three masters were, slightly edited. The scene with the Scotsman, the Irishman and the Welshman (Fluellen) was completely cut, so we moved briskly on to the surrender of Harfleur.

For this, the main body of the English army was on stage, pointing several spotlights at the left hand balcony in the auditorium, where the Harfleur representative was standing. Henry talked at length about the dire consequences if the town didn’t surrender, but he’s really wasting his breath, as the hoped-for French relief hasn’t arrived, and the townsfolk have already decided to concede defeat.

With Harfleur won, Henry and his men headed off for some well-earned rest, and we got our break as well. But this time the cast were out in the foyer, standing on the stairs, entertaining us all with some songs and a plea for money. Apparently they raise money for charity on each tour, so the bucket soon came round. The songs were good fun – we joined in The Wild Rover and Sloop John B – and then they walked up the foyer stairs and down into the auditorium for the second half, still singing.

Meanwhile, back on the stage, Katherine had been getting herself ready for the opening scene of the second half. Karl Davies, in an off-white negligee, was sitting in front of a mirror on the left of the stage. His face was white, and he was applying some more makeup while everyone else got settled for the restart. Actually, once the soldiers arrived, Katherine started flirting with them, even letting them take her picture – terrible sluts, these Propeller men. Her maid, Alice, was Exeter in drag, i.e. he wore a skirt instead of trousers, and still had his pencil moustache – quite a sight.  Alice signed for the bath when it was delivered centre stage, and then when the scene actually started, she checked the water temperature was acceptable for the princess, who got into her bath still dressed. The dialogue went pretty well; when Katherine attempts ‘neck’, she comes out with ‘nick’, and as Alice was shaving her legs at that point, there was an unfortunate correlation between the words and the action.

I think the next bit had two overlapping scenes – the French court preparing for war and Fluellen reporting that the bridge has been held – no Gower in this version. Bardolph was taken up onto the balcony for his execution, and the masked executioner simply twisted his neck to signify the hanging. Bardolph’s corpse lingered there, draped over the bars, for Henry to see when the matter was reported to him later. By the time Mountjoy arrived to ask what ransom Henry’s prepared to pay, the French court had left the stage. Henry had been given Bardolph’s pendant by Pistol; when he told Mountjoy ‘There’s for thy labour’ he handed the pendant to him.

The wonderfully funny scene with the French court preening themselves and boasting about their armour, horses, etc, was cut to the bone, and only took a couple of minutes up on the balcony, which was now towards the back of the stage. The chorus then took us into Henry’s camp at Agincourt, and with a few small pans of flame we got the camp fires and Henry’s meetings with the ordinary soldiers, starting with Pistol. Fluellen and Gower were next, then the two soldiers with whom Henry discussed the responsibilities of a king towards his soldiers. (There are actually three soldiers in the text, but apart from the opening line, one says nothing, so two will do fine.) I always find Henry’s arguments a bit specious here. When he compares the actions of a king with those of an employer or a father, claiming that they don’t intend the death of the people they send on various errands, I reckon it’s a bit different to starting a war when there’s a very good chance some of the soldiers you take with you will be killed. Death is part of the package. However, his point about the soldier cleaning up his soul so that either his death or his life will the better for it, came across clearly this time, and made more sense of the end of that argument. When Erpingham has called him, Henry’s final prayer ditched the first part about his men, and he went straight into ‘Not today, O Lord’, emphasising Henry’s remorse over the killing of Richard II.

Then there’s another round of the French, and then back to the English camp, where Westmoreland rashly wished for more men to help fight the French. Well, that was a red rag to Henry’s bull, and yet again we get the long, long speech to raise his troops’ morale. This one worked really well, though, and as the audience were included in the throng, we were all ready to fight by the end of it. Mountjoy’s final request for a ransom offer was delivered as if he was really worried that the English were all going to be killed, and Henry was strongly defiant.

As the battle started, the punch bags were released, and two men in masks came on wielding baseball bats. As the French attacked, the few English soldiers left on the stage responded to each blow of bat on bag as if they’d been hit, and soon it looked like a French victory. However, these soldiers got up and left and Pistol came on stage, dragging a French prisoner, and accompanied by the boy with a couple of large bags. Pistol held a bar or bat himself, and struck the bags from time to time, all of which his prisoner felt. At the end of the scene, the boy was left in the middle of the stage, a bag on either side, and when the French ran on, alarmed at the state of the battle, they slew the young lad by hitting the punch bags. Another two men had also come on holding spray guns, and they squirted red colouring all over the dead boy. When Henry and his men got back, he held the boy in his arms for a short while, and he was clearly angry. There’s another scene with Fluellen, but I don’t’ remember where it came, and then the French herald turned up again to ask for permission to search the field for the dead and wounded. He looked shell shocked, as he would have been with so much carnage all around.

The king’s argument with Williams was resolved without getting Fluellen to wear the glove in his cap, which cut out a lot of dialogue, and then Mountjoy returned with the body count. The figures were truly amazing, and after Henry has commanded that only God is to get the credit, the cast launch into a Te Deum for the next scene change. While the chorus talked us through Henry’s return to England and next journey into France, a table was made out of the boxes, with a blue cloth placed over the left side for the French, and a white cloth with a red cross over the right, for the English. A silver crucifix was placed in the middle, and Fluellen stood guard. Shortly after, a hand reached up from behind the table, and groped its way to the crucifix. Fluellen launched into ‘God pless you, Aunchient Pistol’, and soon Pistol was munching his way through a large leek. Fluellen happily took a bite out of another – greengrocers must love it when Henry V comes to town – and with Gower still missing we’re left with Pistol mourning the loss of his wife. He took the heart he’d given her out of his rucksack, and I almost felt sorry for the man. But then he headed off to England to cheat and con the population out of their money, so no chance of sympathy for him.

For the final scene, a throne had been placed on the right hand side of the stage, and a plain chair on the left. This was the chair the French king sat in during the ‘negotiations’; he also looked stunned and shocked at what had happened. Henry sat on the throne, and after the French king and the others had left, he wooed Katherine like a man not well equipped in the words department. So often these speeches are delivered in a way that makes the man out to be liar, but tonight I could well believe what he’s saying, that he would much rather fight than woo a woman. His attempts at French had Katherine in fits of giggles, and the kissing was done by each character kissing their own fingertips and placing them on the other’s mouth. When the French king and the rest came back, the peace treaty and the marriage were soon settled, and with his final lines, Henry left the stage. The chorus then finished the play, and we applauded mightily for such a good evening’s entertainment.

There were other songs during the play which I don’t remember specifically now, and the whole energy of the performance, plus the clarity of most of the dialogue, made the play seem fresh and new. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart seemed a little weak in some of his speeches, especially the earlier ones, but his performance grew as the evening went on, and I wouldn’t fault his portrayal in the second half at all. Tony Bell was great fun as Fluellen, and did a nice cameo as Mistress Quickly too. Chris Myles was very good as Exeter and Alice, with some lovely reactions in both parts, and I really enjoyed Gunnar Cauthery’s Dauphin – an arrogant hothead with no redeeming qualities whatsoever (although he did play the accordion very well). All the rest of the cast contributed strong performances too, making it a very powerful production. And this is just the opening week! We’re already checking the tour dates to see if we can fit it in again – I’d love to see how something this good can improve.

I was delighted to see the Yvonne Arnaud theatre packed out for tonight’s show; Propeller have established a great reputation for enjoyable productions of Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew aside). We even had Jon Trenchard and Dominic Tighe nearby during the performance, both of whom had been in the Richard III from earlier this year. I hope the cast get as good a response on tour – they certainly deserve it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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