Henry V

 Bath Abbey

Henry V, staged by the well-regarded Antic Disposition theatre company in the auspicious setting of Bath Abbey ought to have been wonderful, but I confess to having been very slightly underwhelmed by it.

It was presented as a play-within-a-play: Henry the Fifth as performed by a group of English and French soldiers during the First World War. For the first couple of scenes, the illusion is maintained, with characters forgetting their lines, a nurse acting as prompter and a bit of good natured heckling and applause between the characters; but by the time we get to the Boar's Head the conceit has been dropped. I suppose the frame justifies the setting, although I don't think the sorts of people who are inclined to say "Well, actually, I don't think they HAD Lee-Enfield rifles in the fifteenth century" still buy tickets for live theatre. First World War re-imaginings of Shakespeare are common enough to almost be a cliche, but that's because they work pretty well. Uniforms and tin hats make us think of "soldiers" and "war": period costumes would have made us think of "knights in shining armour" and "Lawrence Olivier." 

The programme notes, and the unfortunate clergyman who had to come on at the beginning and welcome us to the cathedral, tried to draw a connection between the Shakespeare play and what is happening in the Ukraine -- and more widely, with the theory that war in general is a Bad Thing. But Shakespeare's text, doesn't seem to particularly invite this reading. It certainly isn't a patriotic pageant that presents war as an exciting game; but it's not a protest song about laying down your sword and shield by the river side either. Shakespeare presents Hal as an all around Good Egg; and nothing in Barnaby Taylor's fine performance makes me think he wasn't. If the audience isn't thinking themselves accursed they were not there and holding their manhood cheap when the battle gets under way, the play hasn't worked.

Henry the Fifth is a prequel. Shakespeare has already told the story of the bloody civil war which culminated in a psychotic hunchback (allegedly) seizing the throne. They lost France and made sweet England bleed, as oft our stage has shown. (The Chorus's lines are shared out among the cast, and Henry himself gets to sum things up at the very end.) Shakespeare isn't saying "Henry V won a great victory, and then the nobles squandered it". He's saying "We know about Lancaster and York whacking hell out of each other for seventy years; but remember, in the olden days before that there was a wonderful young king and we used to whack hell out of the French instead." Britain really ruled the waves in good King Henry's glorious days. There is little in this production which undercuts the sense of Hal as a good chap and a great king. He is respected by his officers and his men and magnanimous to his foes. If anything, the play whitewashes him a bit, dropping the bit about him ordering the French prisoners killed in retaliation for the massacre of the English boys. He's rude to the Dauphin, but the Dauphin deserves it. 

The text is cut down to a bare two hours, some of which is taken up with some largely gratuitous settings of A.E Housman poems (to underline the wartime theme). Houseman's a generation before the Great War but a lot of the war poets had a Shrophshire Lad in their pockets. This means that we lose a lot of detail: the whole of the Southampton scene is excised; Gower and Fluellen only get a few lines and Jamy and MacMorris disappear completely. We retain the tavern scene, but see relatively little of Pistol and Bardolph for the rest of the play. Bardolph's execution for looting, which is only mentioned in the original text becomes a huge, traumatic set piece which ends the first half.  (SEE NOTE).

There is nothing wrong with editing a text: the last Henry I saw conflated Katherine and the Dauphin into a single character, and the one before that cut the play down to one hour and a cast of two. But whatever the play has to tell us about war depends on its breadth: the strikingly modern -- even soap opera-ish -- technique of jumping between the English and French court, the front line, and the ordinary soldiers in the camp. The nicest moment in this production comes in the famous Siege of Harlfleur. (Once more unto the breach!) Henry is carried aloft by his men who are all dutifully crying God for England Harry and St George...leaving Pistol and Bardolph on the stage, wishing they were in a pub in England. The Boy gives the whole thing up and heads for home. The contrast between the very heroic and the very prosaic, the high style and the low (and Fluellen balling them out like any Sgt Major in any war film) seems to me to be the heart of the play: this is what war is presumably like. I wish we could have had more of this material; but Pistol tormenting the Frenchman and being forced to munch Fluellen's look you leak get squashed out of the condensed narrative. 

That said, Barnaby Taylor is impressive as the young inexperienced King, creating the requisite tingles in our spines during the St Crispin's day's speech (presented as a pep-talk to his officers) and doing a particularly from-the-heart treatment of what-have-kings-that-commons-have-not-got. (He shouted a bit too much about being sorry that his Dad killed Richard II for my taste.) The "love" scene between the King and Princess Katherine is carried off particularly well. (Henry has to persuade Kate to consent to marry him, despite having already agreed a political marriage with her father.) Floarianne Anderson as the French princess certainly convinced me that she had gone from hating Hal because he is the enemy of France to liking him because his bad French makes her laugh in only a few minutes -- which isn't any easy task. (Henry's "I love France so much that I would not part with a village of it" is one of Shakespeare's better one-liners.) 

Is Hal a genuinely heroic figure? Or is he merely good at playing the role? Richard II was a medieval monarch who believed in the divine right of kings; Henry IV a machiavel who understood how power worked: he praises his son on his deathbed for being a better liar than he ever was. I'm inclined to think that Henry V is a modern politician who understands that the most important thing is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made. The genius of the play is that he takes everybody in: including the audience; including the actors; including, maybe, the author. 

The show was performed in a long narrow space in the choir of Bath abbey, with the audience on two sides. The sight-lines are not perfect -- it made me realise just how clever Tobacco Factory in-the-round productions can be -- and the booming acoustics meant that actors became inaudible when they turned their backs on sections of the audience. This didn't hurt the rhetorical set pieces, but did slightly spoil some of the comedy.

The play finishes with the cast slipping back into their World War I characters and being sent (we assume) "over the top" bravely reprising the Lads in Their Hundreds. It was quite a touching end; but it relied on what we knew about the Great War rather than on anything which had happened in the play. The audience gave it a partial standing ovation.

The programme says that the First World war setting is supposed to recall Wilfred Owen's "debunking" of the Old Lie about death in battle being noble. "Shakespeare, like Owen recognised that in such conflict there are no winners; that violence begets violence and hat every part of a society touched by war is diminished by it." I'm really not convinced he did.


Another review points out that the actor playing Bardulph is meant to be having an episode of "shell-shock" when the actor playing Henry points the revolver at him for the stage-execution: the first act ends with the cast breaking character because of his real-life trauma. This makes the play-within-the-play motif more important than I gave it credit for being; but it went completely over my head, suggesting that either a: the production was too clever by half or 
b: I am stupid 
c: A bit of both. 

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

"Shakespeare, like Owen recognised that in such conflict there are no winners; that violence begets violence and hat every part of a society touched by war is diminished by it." I'm really not convinced he did.

Strong agreement here. Another example of a very common, in fact almost universal, tendency to overwrite old works with modern perspectives, and attribute those perspectives to the authors of the old works. As you have pointed out (I think perhaps in your Children of Hurin review, one of the things that makes Tolkien stand head and shoulders over all his imitators is this sense that he really got, and could really communicate, the alienness of ancient cultures. It's such a shame to lose that.