Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Henry V

Frances, our president, gives us her impressions of a film of a staged version of this much-loved play.
I saw the 2012 Shakespeare’s Globe production of Henry V the other day. Although we in the antipodes have to watch it on film, the effect is as good as if we were in the audience for the live performance. And what an exciting experience it was!

Having seen the play only in films (Olivier and Branagh) I wondered particularly about the staging of scenes of war. How could even quite a large cast convince us that we were observing battle? Well, very cleverly! The charge against Harfleur’s defences was preceded by a fine ‘Once more unto the breach….’ King Henry addressed the audience directly, as the English army, in a rousing call, building to a fitting climax as it ended with the entire packed crowd at the Globe joining in the cry, ‘God for Harry, England and St. George’ as the cast members charged forward from amongst them on to the stage and through the ‘breach’ at the back. It was electrifying, and one could well have believed that the numbers were far greater than they really were.

Later, of course, there was the stirring speech for St. Crispin’s Day – delivered quietly and persuasively rather than dramatically. It gave the sense of a necessary pause for reflection before the heat of the battle of Agincourt. Here a quite different method proved equally powerful: stylised, almost balletic, movements emphasised, first, the role of the archers and then the brutal close fighting with swords and axes.

Henry V’s character is sometimes said to be inaccessible, but in this production the actor, Jamie Parker, had decided exactly who and what he was portraying. This Henry was evidently a grown-up (Prince Hal long gone), a king not necessarily keen to conquer France, but intelligently and carefully weighing the legalities of his claim and considering his advisors’ counsel. Nonetheless he was hot-tempered, roused by the Dauphin’s insulting present, and shown powerfully later, after the slaughter of the baggage boys, with the order to kill all prisoners. This was a rounded character, comradely with his nobles, and talking easily with the men on the night watch; able to enjoy the humour of the gloves episode and his dealings with Fluellen; and slipping smoothly into the full comedy (as it was played) of Katharine’s wooing. This scene gave us the necessary joyous conclusion after the tensions of the war.

There were some beautiful and subtle details in this performance. Henry was revealed as a leader who very reluctantly adopted harsh measures. The speech to the citizens of Harfleur was spoken as by a battle-weary soldier who appeared to hate the horrifying threats he uttered, and was reciting them as the required formula, the routine procedure in this (unbroken siege) situation. There was a striking divide between the dreadful images of violence to the civilian population in his words, and the exhaustion and revulsion of his manner.

Yet another facet of his personality showed in his prayer before Agincourt, kneeling before his sword raised as a cross. The words had an extraordinary intensity and took the listener right back to Richard and Bolingbroke and the shadow of the usurpation of a rightful king. Earlier in the play, the death of Falstaff harked back to the preceding plays. Just as Pistol and company were leaving for the wars, Falstaff’s corpse, swathed in winding sheets, was lowered from the upper storey of the inn and carried away in silence. This seemed to me an ingenious way to complete his story and further preserve the continuity through the tetralogy.

The tangible realism of the war scenes came, of course, primarily from the fine acting of every member of the cast; also from the spattered mud and blood on their faces; and from the awareness of the technicalities of mediaeval warfare, with a marvellous detail in the emergence of the miners (via the trap-door) covered in mire and sweat.

Clearly, Henry dominated the whole play, but it was a fine ensemble performance, with every character sharply distinguishable and individual. Many, of course, played more than one role, but with effortless differentiation. I was also struck by the balance between comedy and the more serious scenes, and the easy transitions from one to the other – needless to say thanks, of course, to Shakespeare’s writing, but still great credit to the director and actors!

I could go on much longer. There was so much to notice and to think long about, but I hope I have at least shown some of the reasons why I so admired (and will remember) this show.

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