Smashed brickwork, jutting black beams pointing skywards like rigor-stricken fingers… the cold naked skeleton of the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre, barely visible in the darkness, lies skulking by the river. Though its light is extinguished for the moment, it provides a fitting scenic backdrop to the dimly lit street that leads to The Courtyard, new home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I was apprehensive as I walked the extra 500 yards to the new venue, now closer to where the author of tonight’s play has lain for the last 392 years. I could not help but be anxious about what the night might hold, as some recent productions by the R.S.C. have seemed so desperately disparate that said author would have been justified in spinning like a centrifuge. Happily though, tonight he can rest, assured that Henry V (in repertory at The Royal Shakespeare
Company through March 14th) is in safe hands, the lens of his magnifying glass not contorted by convex notions, but polished to perfection. We can see with explicit clarity the machinations of monarchs and men, and wonder how a 409-year-old play can still resonate so acutely today.
It is uncanny how one can align contemporary events to such an aged script, a fact not lost on Sir Nicholas Hytner when he moved the English invasion of France to Iraq in his 2003 production of Henry V at the National Theatre. For that production Hytner populated the stage with battle-camouflaged Land Rovers. I would submit that such a pointed statement focuses on only one facet of a complex set of nuances. This risks insulting the perceptive ability of the audience and limiting the possibilities of reason, morality, and causality that can occupy the mind long after the applause has ceased.
In Michael Boyd’s current R.S.C. production of Henry V, Shakespeare’s play does not so much occupy the mind but lay lengthy siege to it. It resists the allure of easy parallels with the recent conflicts of this century. In both program and stage, it raises ghosts of wars long gone, such as the Great War, and the Falklands. Depending on your point of view, these can be seen retrospectively as either pointless dances of death performed by many for the majestic enhancement of the few, or bloody embodiments of national pride that glorify the country’s international reputation. Either way, though, one is – hopefully – soon back debating the value of glory in relation to its brute cost.
If one leaves the theatre with much to ponder, the three hours of performance are but constant delight. This is a dynamic production, every detail well thought through. The cast are faultless, almost to a man, for there is little room for the female in this play; war is the work of men, and women are either objectified as prizes, or used for a brief counterpoint of humanity and forgiveness. Sadly, Forbes Mason’s Chorus is the only weak point, his chatty, homely style of delivery needing more gravitas. This is never more so than in his final sonnet, which points out that for all the blood spilt, there was no lasting gain.
The inventive use of the theatrical space constantly fills the eye, almost to the point that it is hard to savor all that occurs. The English costumes are a kind of medieval outlaw biker chic, with a sprinkle of Mad Max (though they become a little Ozwold Boateng in the final scene). They draw exclusively from a pallet of black, grey, and battle-dulled silver. One effect of this is to make the gold crown on Henry’s head a focal point, like the North Star in a winter’s sky. The English are of the earth, they inhabit the ground, both on it and under it. The stage’s manifold trap doors become tunnels, trenches, or hidey-holes of surprise, effective for both comedy and pathos, and they help portray the English as the French see them: savage but moribund.
The French aristocracy meanwhile flies high, their feet literally never touching the ground. They spend virtually the entire play on a gaily decked trapeze, entering and exiting by ascending and descending. The Chorus hovers on a levitating piano, clothed in columbine, royal blue, and heavily ornate gold brocade. They preen and pose like exotic caged birds, resplendent in huge swallow-tailed coats.
The Dauphin, played by John Mackay, is a treat, a flouncing, petulant, truculent she-male, arrogant, heartless, viciously effeminate, more Marie Antoinette than Vercingetorix. The French King Charles VI, played by Sandy Neilson, is by contrast stoic and statesmanlike, pragmatic but morose. The contrast when the king addresses his court is like Moses presiding over the Scissor Sisters. The ethereal nature of the French court gives a surreal edge to the effusive praise the Dauphin bestows upon his steed: Caligula would have blushed.
The episcopal justification for war is handled with great humor. Geoffrey Freshwater’s Archbishop of Canterbury, delivering his opinion, reminds one of nothing more than Sir Humphrey’s convoluted loquacious verbosity in Yes Minister. The scene is not just humorous but telling: while the opinion is delivered, Exeter, Westmoreland, and the rest of the court look on with a mixture of boredom and confusion, but Henry is totally rapt. Then he asks the only question he is really interested in: ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’ Giving the only acceptable answer, Canterbury responds, ‘the sin is upon my head, dread sovereign’.
We are dragged from comedy to potential slaughter, as the court suddenly becomes like the youth of England: on fire. Henry is the ever-plausible regular guy, his fist of steel well shrouded by the velvet glove of rhetoric. The great speeches (rousing or hollow depending on your view) are delivered without Olivian zeal: you do not expect him to rip his still-beating heart out of his chest with studded gauntlet to prove his spirit. Henry’s delivery is one of measured emphasis, picking out the memorable phrases and offering them to us like well-crafted sound bites. This Henry is best captured by Bloom’s memorable encapsulation: ‘brutally shrewd and shrewdly brutal’. It is this Henry whom Geoffrey Streatfield brings to life with such charismatic vigor.
One is loath to single out any other individual performance, lest one subtract from the power of the ensemble’s. However it would be impossible not to mention the mighty Jonathan Slinger, whose Richard III garnered such plaudits. His is perfect as Fluellen, the belligerent Welsh captain, whether haplessly identifying Henry’s rejection of Falstaff, or beating Pistol, by leek and cudgel, in a scene played with such vitality that six rows back I could smell and taste the leek.
That is not the only moment when the audience is caught up in the texture of the play. When the time is come for the onslaught of steel from the massed ranks of the English and Welsh Longbows, the auditorium is filled with hundreds of crepe streamers. These arc through the flying French Knights, benignly assailing both nobleman and patron to great effect. It is a perfectly realized moment that resists the ‘sturm und drang’ found in more obvious productions.
To emphasise the foundations of empire and conquest, the post-Agincourt play is acted out on a plinth. This is constructed, as we watch, from the coffins of those who died in battle. It is as if the visceral reality of the statistics and the roll call of the dead do not make their point with enough force.
Another point made with great force is in the pre-battle walkabout, where the disguised King is told by soldier Michael Williams of the spiritual consequences of immoral and unjust war: ‘But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make.’ Williams goes on to detail the horrors that await those who invoke war without wisdom and just cause: ‘It will be a black matter for the King that led them.’
The ovation that greets the cast at the final curtain is perhaps all the critical perspective necessary on this masterly production. I must urge you to see it if at all possible. While there, please spend three pounds on a program; it has worthwhile historical context, and essays of academic perspective, one by Stephen Greenblatt worth the purchase cost alone.
Without the weight of the whole world watching a festival of every Shakespearian play, it seems the R.S.C. is still capable of world-class productions: ‘A Kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene’.