Ascend the Bright Heaven of Invention

What: Henry V by William Shakespeare

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

When: October 1st, 2015

Sometimes the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “devices” to make a particular production innovative and relevant to the modern audience don’t work. I’m amongst their sharpest critics when they don’t. Occasionally they do. Now whilst audiences members that I spoke to after the performance and during the interval were divided, I have to say I fall into the positive camp when it comes to this most recent production of Henry the Fifth.

The device that I have in mind is to utilise the excellent Oliver Ford Davies as a modern-dressed “Chorus” in the midst of a traditionally-dressed cast to draw the audience into the changing scenes and settings. Now this seems to me to chime exactly with the role that “Chorus” plays in the script and it is ripe for this kind of development in the modern day without any artifice. He tells us that the group of players are not going to re-create the numbers of the Battle of Agincourt and other settings but “since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million” so his small cast would represent that battle in a similar way. In late 19th and early 20th century productions of Shakespeare’s histories, huge elaborate sets would have been used to recreate the world of the play. “Chorus”, here, rather creates the world of the original players and the play is stronger for it. And as Mr Davies wanders the stage in slightly foppish casual dress that you could easily imagine him wearing when he is out for a day in the park with his family, then the bridge across the centuries is built for us too. Today and yesterday meet and it is a happier marriage than some of the RSC’s attempts at that have been in the not too distant past.

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There is however a little sharpening to do. Prior to the beginning of the play proper an announcement is distantly heard calling the actors to take up their marks but there is confusion in the audience as to whether this is a private announcement made on the wrong channel on the p.a. or a pseudo-private announcement which we are meant to overhear to draw us into the world that “Chorus” is about to create. It is too loud for the former, too quiet for the latter – if we are going down this road then let’s go the whole hog, in the way that the RSC’s production of “Twelfth Night” some years ago had the party at the beginning of the play happening amongst the public who were waiting to go into the auditorium. Sometimes things can be so subtle that they lose their value.

As well the aforementioned Oliver Ford Davies, we have a strong cast here, most of whom are holdovers from the Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 of a couple of years ago and this creates a strong sense of continuity. No Anthony Sher (Sir John Falstaff) this time as Falstaff’s only role is to die off-stage but his cohorts Joshua Richards (Bardolph), Christopher Middleton (Nym) and Antony Byrne (Pistol) and Sarah Parks (Mistress Quickly) are back and in fine form and fettle. Martin Bassindale as the Boy is particularly noteworthy as he ponders and vacillates about whether his Masters are fit characters to follow.

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In an amusing touch, Joshua Richards doubles as Fluellen, the Welsh Officer, and is therefore the character who asks Henry whether his own Bardolph character should be put to death.

Whether you enjoy this play will probably be decided on two factors. Firstly, the question of whether you find Alex Hassell as convincing as the King as he was as the young reprobate in the preceding Henry IV. The solution I think is to imagine a character who is uncertain of his own footing in his new role as King and then the problem is resolved and this may well be intentional. This might be slightly charitable to Mr Hassell who makes one or two key speeches and monologues a little nondescript but the charity may be well placed when you consider how well he delivers the rousing “Once more unto the breach…”  on a empty stage to us, the audience, as his army.

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The second is more difficult and concerns the manner of the play that our distinguished author has delivered and his modern audience. This is usually regarded as a patriotic play and we live in an age that is uneasy with English patriotism. Close examination reveals that the play is not as naturally patriotic as Olivier may have had us believe but that is the problem with presuppositions. Also this is a religious play which hangs on the notion that God has brought victory to England and even those who are of faith or religious find the “God is on our side” notion a little nauseating today. Finally, it is a play whose gentler romantic scenes don’t work as well as many others the Bard wrote. So Henry wooing Katherine in broken French and English in the second-to-last scene is perhaps the least convincing moment of the night and allows the end to drift just a little.

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But these are the mechanics of such a play in the modern world and they are the hand that the RSC has been dealt and this is a very honest production that delivers up the play’s strengths and weaknesses. Director, Gregory Doran has done an exemplary job. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ stage-set augments all of Doran’s work well and this has been my favourite night with the RSC since… since Henry IV Part II.

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