Theater Review: Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company completes its productions of what is known as the second tetralogy, which comprises Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. (The links go to my reviews of the previous plays.) The new production of Henry V, currently in previews in Stratford-Upon-Avon, caps off this series very well. Starring Alex Hassell again, as Henry V, this production, directed by Gregory Doran, paints a minimal picture of the play that is often produced, or filmed, as a grand spectacle of war and patriotism.

Before the play begins, the audience discovers a stark stage, bearing nothing but a slightly rusted steel throne on a wooden platform. (This is the same throne used by Richard II, and by Henry IV.) We can see behind the stage, all the way to the rear wall of the theater, where there are props waiting to be used in the play. All the walls are broken down here, in preparation for the Chorus’s opening speech.

Oliver Ford-Davies is the Chorus, and he enters the stage almost randomly, attired in a cardigan and a scarf; modern garb, unlike the actors. He saunters up to the throne, picks up the crown lying on it and toys with it, then Alex Hassell comes out and snatches it from him before the Chorus begins his introduction, where he invites us to use our imagination as the players are to tell a story that takes place in two countries, with sea journeys, battles, and more.

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And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Henry V is about England’s greatness, as it triumphs over France, and about Henry becoming a king, after the debauches we saw in the Henry IV play. Alex Hassell plays this brilliantly, shedding the somewhat childish persona he used as Prince Hal, becoming a true monarch. Yet he presents a Henry V who is vulnerable, fragile.

The staging helps paint a portrait of a king who seems uncertain. Overall, with a few exceptions in the second half of the play, Mr Doran’s production strips away as much as possible, with no sets, few props, and as few characters on stage as possible. When Henry makes the famous speech at Harfleur, in front of the besieged castle, he stands alone, with only one other actor visible, crouching on the steps at the front of the stage.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.

As the Chorus explained, we are to use our imagination. The stage directions for this scene call for the following:

Alarum. Enter KING HENRY, EXETER, BEDFORD, GLOUCESTER, and Soldiers, with scaling-ladders

But the starkness of Henry alone on the stage help underscore that he, the king, really is alone. The scenes before the battle, later in the play, do feature more actors, and even when they run across the stage fighting, it always seems like they are few compared to what one might expect.

Henry V is probably best known for the St Crispin’s day speech, where Henry says:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

This is well staged, with Henry standing on a cart with a half-dozen soldiers around him. Alex Hassell performs this with grace and confidence, and it’s a moving moment in the play, but it remains compact, not expansive.

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There is much humor in the play, as a counterpoint to the more serious scenes, involving characters such as Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, who were in Henry IV, along with the Welshman Fluellen, with his excessive verbiage. Played by Joshua Richards, who also plays Bardolph, he is a wonderful comic character.

This is a company play. Aside from Alex Hassell’s central role, the play is held up by a solid cast, many of whom were in the Henry plays as well. Oliver Ford-Davies was wonderful as the Chorus; huge-voiced Antony Byrne played Pistol with boundless energy; Jane Lapotaire was subtle as Queen Isobel; and the rest of the cast was excellent.

Musically, there was little more than “alarums,” or trumpets, until the end of Act IV, where Henry says:

Do we all holy rites;
Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum;’
The dead with charity enclosed in clay:
And then to Calais; and to England then:
Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men.

A number of singers came out on the platforms above the stage, on the sides, where the musicians play, and the cast joined in the singing of this funeral music. It was a moving scene.

There were a couple of flubbed lines, not surprising for an early preview, but nothing suggested that this play needs many changes before opening night. I noted that it ran about ten minutes longer than it was supposed to (it was stated as being 2:35 plus a 20-minute intermission, and ran about 2:45), and it felt that the second half was a bit slower than the first.

This is a fine ending for this Henriad. The RSC will be performing all four of the plays in London later this year, and the play will be filmed and broadcast to cinemas on October 21, then later released on DVD and Blu-Ray.