Henry V – July 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th July

I may have rated this experience slightly lower than the first time we saw this production, but that doesn’t reflect just how much the performances have come on since that early part of the tour. The energy is still there, the dialogue has become much clearer, and this is definitely one of the best Henry V’s I’ve seen. The only thing affecting the rating is that there wasn’t the surprise factor this time, and that often makes an experience less enjoyable for me. The audience certainly seemed as responsive, so I don’t think that came into it.

The set was as before, as were the costumes (Alice didn’t have to sign for the bath this time, though). I think the opening had been changed slightly, with the actors taking different parts of the Chorus perhaps? Understandable on a long run, keeps it fresh. The Archbishop and Bishop’s conversation was crystal clear this time round, and as we weren’t distracted by ‘crap’ staging this time (Globe production), I was aware that the Archbishop’s offer of money for a war had been interrupted by the arrival of the French ambassador – sitting smirking on the chest behind them – and that the king was due to hear the rest of the Archbishop’s Salic law reasoning shortly. Now why can’t they always be that clear?

There was quite a long song to cover the change of set, and then the religious pair kept the king waiting even longer. The Salic law point was dealt with quickly, but in reasonable detail, and the arrival of the tennis balls was just as before. However, this time they made sure they were all off the set before continuing! I’ve seen search terms on this blog connecting ‘Propeller’ and ‘injury’, so I suspect experience has taught some hard lessons on this tour.

The chorus bit was just about over before the balls were all cleared, and then we had the traitors bit. They weren’t taken up the stairs for their execution, just made to kneel on the stage, but they did all die from one axe stroke. Henry didn’t take the axe with him this time. London Calling was still the intro to the rougher elements of the play, but what a change in the dialogue. Admittedly we’d seen the Globe’s production only a couple of weeks ago, and they made this scene clearer than usual so I had a head start, but this was much more understandable through not only their delivery of the lines but also the actions used to indicate their meaning. Again the two scenes were combined, and Mistress Quickly, in her wedding dress, was present without having much to say; they did get the ‘prick’ gag in, though. At the end, when Pistol told the others to kiss his new wife as they left, there was a range of reactions from the crew; some made a valiant attempt, most were put off by the smell, but Nym was the saddest – he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. She gave him one of the tennis balls padding her bra instead, which he held to his face as he ran off, overcome with emotion. This time I could see the red heart that Pistol gave her, and it had a little glowing light in it – ahh.

Another rendition of Chanson D’Amour, and then the discussion amongst the French nobility; I didn’t spot the Dauphin reacting to the mention of Crecy this time, but we were on the other side of the stage. The rest of the first half was as before, and we headed out quickly to hear the singing and joined in most of the songs.

Katherine was at her toilette when we got back, with her face all white. Just the cheeks and some lipstick and she was ready for her bath. The English lesson came across very well, and then we were back into battle. There were a few changes to the staging that I noticed: Exeter killed Bardolph himself, and the body lay flat with only the boots showing at the front of the platform. Pistol’s prisoner dragged himself onto the stage this time, and the blood sprayed on the boy was a very weak red – running out of Kensington gore? When Henry had his argument with Williams, I noticed that Bates, the other soldier who tells them “Be friends, you English fools”, was played by Gary Shelford, who also played Bardolph, the peace-keeper between Nym and Pistol earlier in the play, and with the same argument – fight the French, not each other.

Apart from a couple of oaths by Pistol that we don’t remember from before – ‘bloody Welsh’ (after the leek-eating incident), and ‘Merde’ (as the French came on to the stage for an early scene) – the rest of the performance was as we remembered, and we joined in the rapturous applause at the end, happy to have seen such a great production a second time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry V – June 2012


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

Henry V – November 2011


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

Henry V – January 2008


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

Henry V – February 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Pippo Delbono

Company: Compagnia Pippo Delbono

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st February 2007

This lasted for only an hour and five minutes – the projected time was an hour and a half, so we were back in our room good and early – hooray! On with my notes.

My first laugh came when I looked at the cast list, and saw:

“Henry V                                     Pippo Delbono

Friend of the King                   Pepe Robledo

The French                                Gustavo Giacosa”!

I’ve heard of doubling, but this is ridiculous! Anyway, I had a good laugh about that, which left me in an appreciative frame of mind for this production. I realised it was going to be a mish-mash, songs, dance, some of the text perhaps, conveying the feeling of the piece rather than a production of the actual play, so I was prepared to sit through anything at all for the hour and a half. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, till near the end.

We started in total darkness, with some of the actors clumping around quite loudly, on the stage and round the back and sides. Finally, we got a little light, but only on the surtitle screens, as Henry (though we don’t know it’s him at the time) starts accusing various people of high treason. At each accusation, we hear a wheelchair clattering onto the stage, and position itself at the back. When the lights come up, we see three men sitting in a row at the back of the stage, and Henry is sitting? standing? near the front, using a microphone. He calls forward one of the men, who stands up, and moves to the middle of the stage. This was Gustavo Giacosa – he was very tall and extremely thin, with most of his ribs showing, and at his execution, he folded gracefully to the floor.

With the three men off the stage, another man, Pepe Robledo comes on, naked to the waist, with a bucket, and begins to scrub the floor. He informs Henry that Falstaff is dead, and goes through Mistress Quickly’s lines about his death. Henry is just lying at the front of the stage during this.

I don’t remember the order of everything else, but this is most of what happened. Someone brings on a tall plinth, about waist-high for most people, and Gustavo comes on, wrapped up in a long coat and with a muffler, and using the most amazing flexibility of his legs, puts first one foot on the plinth, then steps right up onto it. It was amazing, and got a good laugh from the audience – reminiscent of John Cleese and the Ministry of Funny Walks. Other actors formed a double line either side of the stage, and Gustav calls out “The King, the King” several times. Henry comes on, fairly diffident at this time, and gradually growing in confidence. Gustav leaves the plinth, and the other actors also leave the stage, as Henry starts shouting “I want France”. The way he said it was very funny. Then we saw the Dauphin, elegantly dressed, sitting on a chair, talking about tennis balls – all colours of balls. After this, the rest of the male ensemble danced their way onto the stage, some hand-in-hand, and formed up behind him. He was laughing a lot, and waving his long limbs around. This became the paean of praise for his horse, and for once, we actually get to see the fantastic horse walking onto the stage (an actor wearing an elaborate horse’s head headdress), opening its fan and standing on the chair to sing a lovely song to the enthralled ensemble. Very talented, this horse.

When in France, and around the “Once more unto the breach” speech, we see the ensemble, finishing with Gustav, assemble themselves into an emotionally moving sculpture to the rear of the stage. The first actor places himself very carefully, lying along the floor, and the others place themselves so they can lean gently on him, and in this way they build up a mound of human bodies. This obviously represents the many dead, on both sides, as a result of the war. There’s also a lot of holding hands over faces, and especially eyes, as the number of dead makes its impact. Later, another symbol of death occurs when the ensemble enter in a line, and start to lay themselves on the stage from the front to the back, lying on their backs, to the sound of Henry reading out the list of the dead. Once done, Henry takes the opportunity to leap around a bit over their bodies and do his peculiar little dance routine, which I still have no explanation for.

And it was around this time that I started to lose interest in the piece. One major symbol of death was fine, but this went on so long it started to become overstated. Fortunately, there wasn’t much to go. Pepe came on, minus an arm and a leg, using a big metal pole as a crutch, and thumping it into the ground very emphatically. He then starts crying out “The war is won”, and seems to be grinning from ear to ear, although in this situation, it’s a little difficult to tell if he’s smiling or crying. He does look at Henry, and the two of them exchange looks of satisfaction, but then Pepe moves back, and the tone changes – he seems to be grieving. Then the actors rose from their places, congregating towards the back of the stage, and after a few more lines from Henry, he and Pepe move to join them and the lights go out. That’s all folks. They take their bows, making the most of it before they go off. A number of people seemed to have really liked it, but I have heard louder applause in the Swan.

Other points include the horse coming on to grieve over the dead body of the Dauphin – I think this happens before the mass grave demonstration towards the end. There was a lot of music used during the production – possibly taped – songs of various kinds, and often played at the limit of endurance, even with a little distortion to the sound at times. The whole production had a balletic quality; they used movement and semi-dance a lot, and the whole piece looked choreographed. The performances were mainly external – based on movement rather than internal emotions and thoughts.

Overall, I got some ideas from it, and I did enjoy some of the humour. The cast, particularly the two leads, seemed to be very good at engaging with their audience to tell their story, and it was easy to get involved right away. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this kind of theatre again, but I wouldn’t completely avoid it either. We both agreed it was a good job we’d booked to see Merry Wives The Musical again this trip, as we might have felt a bit cheated at only getting an hour and a bit of performance out of a trip to Stratford.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me