Henry V: The Globe gets it just right

In Liverpool this week we’ve been fortunate in seeing the Globe Theatre production of Henry V on the first leg of a nationwide tour, prior to its opening back at the Globe at Southwark in June.  I had my doubts when I heard that in this Olympic summer the Globe were presenting the one Shakespeare play in which the patriotic notes can be turned up to full volume.  But – no worries; this is a superb production that is colourful, inventive and deft in highlighting all the nuances of Shakespeare’s text.

Henry V is a popular play, crammed with glorious and familiar poetry.  Like many of my generation, I imagine, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw – in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version which had reflected the moment in offering a rousing, patriotic rallying cry for Britons as the war entered its last months. It’s remained a favourite for me ever since, with its glorious poetry and uproarious comedy.

Henry V can be presented as a play to thrill proud patriots – or as a satire on conniving politicians who resort to war to serve their own ends, and a condemnation of the brutality of war.  This production doesn’t veer towards either pole.  Instead, it underlines the fact that Shakespeare is far too subtle to preach, or offer anything less than a multi-faceted view of human nature.  I think this is crystallised in the joyous musical coda that director Dominic Dromgoole has added to the play, in which all the characters join the band of musicians in cavorting around the stage: we see the ‘fair field full of folk’ that Shakespeare has explored – high and low, honourable and thieving, brave and cowardly, the warrior and the sceptic.  For this is a play in which heroism and villainy march shoulder to shoulder.

Shakespeare’s Henry is a nuanced portrayal of a monarch who appears at times the courageous leader able to inspire his subjects to rally to the cause, whether mingling with them incognito on the eve of battle or employing the high-flown rhetoric that the play has become famous for:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood [...]

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Or:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered -
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

On the one hand Henry can expressly order that,

…  in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

Yet also terrify the governor of Harfleur with these words:

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

Later, on the battlefield, in revenge for the deaths of leading English nobles, Henry orders the immediate execution of all French prisoners.

Music is woven into the fabric of this production, helping to reinforce the authentic sense of the medieval world that director Dominic Dromgoole seeks to create.  The play opens and ends with music, and musical interludes are interspersed throughout the action – played on period instruments such as sackbut, lute, cittern, hurdy-gurdy and cornet by a small band of musicians.

In another example of this quest for authenticity, the play opens to the startling sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely plotting to convince the king of the desirability of regaining lost lands in France whilst having a crap and wiping their arses as a servant hovers with a handwash bowl.  Defecating in public – and accompanying the act with a little conversation or intrigue – would not have been regarded as out of the ordinary in those days.

There was attention to period detail, too, in the costumes, from the rich silks and fur of wealthy courtiers to the rags and filth of the poor infantrymen. The set brought a slice of The Globe to the Playhouse: two huge pillars, a balcony and a stairway constructed from rustic wooden planks served as a representation of the stage at The Globe.

The acting was uniformly excellent.  Jamie Parker as Henry gave a sound performance – and I was struck by the way in which he (and others in the cast) avoided the conventional declamatory style of delivery in favour of a more natural one that seemed to elucidate the meaning and the poetry of the lines.

[Update 22 April: listening to The Reunion today on Radio 4 explained that this style of delivery constitutes one of the significant contributions that The Globe has made to British theatrical practice.   The programme reunited five people who helped create The Globe Theatre and,  despite three decades of setbacks made it a critical and commercial success.  One of the contributers made the point that The Globe's architecture, with a standing audience close to the actors, means that the actors can deliver their lines as if the audience were on stage with them.  The discussion also made clear how the commitment to period detail - whether in music or costume - is a central element of the Globe house style.]

Sam Cox as Pistol was brilliant as the eccentric, grasping and cowardly former drinking partner of the king.  The Welsh Captain Fluellen was rendered perfectly by Brendan O’Hea, while Chris Starkie deserves a mention for his astonishing performance as the Scottish Captain Jamy, his lines delivered in such broad Glaswegian as to be completely unintelligible.

An unusual feature of this production is that the Chorus is played by a woman (as per Greek drama, perhaps).  Brid Brennan’s performance was superb, drawing attention to an element of the play that might be overlooked.  Yet there is a great deal of interest in this Chorus: in an almost Brechtian manner, Shakespeare repeatedly draws attention to the unreality of the scenes being presented on stage, and to the limits of what can be staged.  Right from those wonderful opening lines, in fact:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

In the prologue, the Chorus reminds the audience of the limitations of the play:

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Henry V was written in 1599, a crucial year in Shakespeare’s career that is the subject of a book by James Shapiro that I read a few years back – 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.  I recall its vivid opening chapter that describes how, in the last days of December 1598, a troupe of players led by Richard Burbage (probably the first actor to play the role of Henry V), armed with pikes and swords, march to the Theatre in Shoreditch.  The actors are members of The Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s band of brothers. The armaments are  props from the Curtain Theatre where the Chamberlain’s Men had been forced, for the season just past, to stage their productions following a dispute with the landlord of their previous venue, London’s oldest and most celebrated playhouse, the Theatre in Shoreditch.

The Chamberlain’s Men, now lacking a permanent playing space, were in danger of becoming homeless.  But they had secured some land in Southwark, giving them a building site, but no theatre.  Strictly speaking, Burbage owned the building at Shoreditch, but ownership was most likely to be disputed by the man who owned the land, the man with whom the company were in contention.  So while he was away on his Christmas holidays, the plan was for the actors to steal it from under his nose, dismantling the theatre’s timbers and transporting them across the river.  And, of course, that plan proved successful – the original Globe Theatre being the upshot.

Shapiro also tells how Henry V was written against the backdrop of what turned out to be the ill-fated Irish campaign by the ambitious Earl of Essex, suspected of mounting his expedition in expectation of returning victorious to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.  Henry V may be the only play in which Shakespeare makes explicit reference to the political situation at the time he was writing, giving these words to the Chorus at the opening of the final act, comparing Henry’s triumphant return to London, firstly with that of ‘conquering Caesar’ returning to Rome, and then with Essex returning, ‘as in good time he may’, with ‘rebellion broached on his sword':

But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens!
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry.

Olivier’s take on St Crispian:

 Derek Jacobi as the Chorus speaks the prologue from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version:

And the 1944 Olivier version:

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