By Willliam Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe
Date: Wednesday 27th June 2012
The stage was much the same as for the Hamlet earlier this month; the scaffolding at the back, the pointy thrust at the front, and two groups of three chairs stacked behind each pillar. The musicians treated us to a lovely selection of (I assume) Elizabethan music to warm us up, and then Brid Brennan as the Chorus strode forward to get the play started. I gather it’s not the first time a woman has played the Chorus, but certainly the first time at the Globe (Zoe Wanamaker at the opening ceremony aside), and it was amazing to hear this speech as it would have been done originally, addressed directly to an audience which the actor could see, and which could respond if it wanted to. I found the imagery more relevant, with the whole idea of the actor directing the crowd’s imaginations coming strongly to the fore. And the references to “this wooden ‘o’”, coupled with Brid Brennan’s circular arm movements, were accurate at long last! Her delivery was also clear and strong, which got us off to a good start. (I also liked the program’s description of this opening speech in the synopsis: “The Chorus apologises for this attempt to present a great historical subject in the theatre.”) After her speech, she stayed on stage as a servant in the next scene which was a nice touch, having the Chorus as part of the action.
The next scene, the discussion between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely on tax evasion (plus ça change…) was the crappiest performance I’ve ever seen. I make no apologies for this comment. A padded chair had been brought on stage, placed between and behind the two pillars, and when the seat was raised, it turned out to be a luxury toilet. Each churchman took his turn, with the servant providing the hand washing facilities. This was funny, of course, and entertaining, but it’s one of those choices that plays against the text, with very little of the dialogue coming across clearly; not much help to the audience given the complex nature of the arguments for and against war with France. Still, it’ll get the crowd on your side, which is not a bad thing, and at least we knew the gist of the discussion, so no problem for us.
With the plush Portaloo removed, the new king took to the stage, looking a little nervous, I thought. He sat near the front during the Archbishop’s lecture, which seemed even longer than I remember. A plane flew over during this speech; the king looked up, then leaned nearer to the Archbishop to hear him better, which was funny. He also showed a clear reaction when Canterbury (finally!) finished explaining why Salic law did not bar his claim to France. As an aside, we had fewer planes and helicopters this time compared to Hamlet, thank goodness, though they were still a bit of a nuisance. The tennis balls were confined to the box in this production, and Henry made it clear to the French ambassador that the gift would backfire.
I’m not sure when Chorus told us about the three traitors, but she was on stage as a pedlar for the first scene with the low lifes, and even used her knife to good effect when Nym (or Pistol) tried to threaten her. While Bardolph was consoling Nym, we could hear the sounds of sexual activity coming from the upper level; this made sense of Nym’s unhappiness with Pistol, which was handy when the words weren’t too clear. When Pistol and Mistress Quickly came downstairs, the fight began in earnest, but peace was eventually made so they could go and fight the French. Sir John’s illness was included in this version.
Chorus introduced the Southampton scene, while the three traitors strolled onto the stage and sat on three chairs placed diagonally across the stage. The action was much as usual, although when the three were declaring themselves delighted that their treachery had been discovered, Scroop was believable, Cambridge just a tad over the top, but Grey was way over the top; his gushing flattery was received with humour by the audience.
The departure of Pistol and the crew to Southampton was pretty standard, apart from the trunk on a trolley. This was left behind when the characters walked off, and as the French court came on, Pistol returned to take the trunk away, stopping the French throne from coming on. The French court’s discussion was pretty clear, Chorus did another travelogue, and then we were into the battles.
Henry’s “once more unto the breach” was fine, addressing the audience a lot, followed by the reluctant combatants Pistol, Nym and Bardolph being rousted along by Fluellen. For the Scots captain, Chris Starkie used a completely unintelligible Scottish-sounding growl which raised quite a laugh. Harfleur was taken, and then Katherine had her English lesson with Alice. I forget when the interval came – it’s usually around now – and then the French had their little pep talk, with the audience again standing in for all those French nobles the cast couldn’t manage to show on stage.
The scenes flowed through nicely to the end. Henry was saddened by Bardolph’s death momentarily, but stuck to his guns. The French were far too smug before the battle, even in the relatively few lines they were left with. Harry walked about his camp and encountered the usual suspects, finishing with his soliloquy about ceremony and part of his prayer. The St Crispin speech was fine, though I wasn’t necessarily ready to charge onto the stage to help out, and then the battle began. Pistol’s prisoner was treated badly as usual, and then the order was given to kill the prisoners before the French killed the boys. I think Fluellen carried the dead boy on stage and put him near the front, where the king saw him when he came on.
After the battle, Fluellen was sent after Williams, they fought, the king restored order and then the list of the dead was presented and read out. I always find that bit moving, and so it was today. Fluellen ‘persuaded’ Pistol to eat his greens, after which Pistol did a mini-Richard III and declared his intention to become even more of a villain than he already was. Queen Isabel was actually at the final court scene for once, and after Burgundy’s Springwatch report, Henry’s wooing of Katherine was suitably awkward. They finished with Henry’s last line, the Chorus’s references to Henry VI part 1 being unnecessary when this play is done on its own. Besides, the dance at the end fitted in well with a wedding celebration, and left us with a happy feeling.
While there was nothing wrong with this production (apart from the staging of the first scene), there was a lack of energy, a missing spark. Overall the production leant towards the patriotic side, and while that’s an acceptable decision, I didn’t feel the text had been examined rigorously enough to give us greater depth. Of course I may have missed some of that from our side view, and on the plus side there was plenty of audience involvement, but that’s natural at the Globe and I would have preferred a meatier production of this play. Having said that, Jamie Parker was fine as Henry and the rest of the performances supported him well, with Chorus being particularly good. I enjoyed myself well enough, and the post-show chat with Brid Brennan and David Hargreaves was entertaining and interesting.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me