Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford
When Michael Boyd took over as artistic director of the RSC, he instigated several measures designed to restore the company's reputation as the best for performing Shakespeare: an ensemble of actors given contracts for longer periods; longer rehearsal times; and a concentration on voice work so that the Bard's words became the strongest part of any production.
By placing the greatest emphasis on Shakespeare's script, Boyd felt the actors could take chances and experiment with their lines, giving a freshness to plays which have been performed so frequently that the audiences almost know them off by heart.
It seems odd, then, that Henry V, which completes the cycle of Shakespeare's eight history plays, should resort to gimmicks which seem alien to the modern RSC.
Did Boyd get bored with the language, the actors or the histories cycle? It would seem he grew tired of something as Henry V contains the kind of symbolism usually associated with lesser directors who need a stunningly spectacular show to make up for the inadequacies of their actors.
Here, though, there's little wrong with the ensemble. How can it be when you have actors of the calibre of Maureen Beattie (Mistress Quickly), Geoffrey Freshwater (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Roger Watkins (Bishop of Ely)?
But Boyd takes a couple of themes and develops them so that they become integral to the production without, in my opinion, adding anything special.
He views the French as lofty, haughty and superior to the English yet teetering on the brink of a fall. It's natural enough to have the French king, dressed in white to stress his country's innocence in the war with England, on a high platform looking down on everyone. But the rest of the French court make their entrances on trapezes and have to show great dexterity as well as being vocally astute.
During the battle of Agincourt, white streamers are released from the rafters and remain in place until the end. The symbolism was lost on me. There are also times when the Chorus plays a piano suspended above the stage; the reason for that also passed me by.
This version of Henry V starts off excellently, with Forbes Masson caressing every word of his "O for a muse of fire" speech as he sets the scene.
There are a couple of humorous touches as Shakespeare's words have been changed to suit the production. Instead of "may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?" we get "may we cram within this rusty shed", a reference to the temporary Courtyard Theatre while the main one is rebuilt. And after delivering the line "turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour glass" Masson corrects himself: "three-and-a-half hour glasses", the play's real running time.
Geoffrey Streatfeild who plays Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts I and II naturally enough gets the lead role in Henry V. He gives a solid performance without being totally convincing. You don't see the evidence for Montjoy's description of him towards the end of the play as a "great" king; he's not charismatic enough as a warrior and on hearing his "once more unto the breach" and Saint Crispin's Day speeches you doubt whether his men would have blindly followed him into battle when they were outnumbered five to one.
The best performances come from Jonathan Slinger with a delightful Welsh accent as Captain Fluellen; the incredibly lithe John Mackay as the posturing, petulant Dauphin; and Antony Bunsee as the Constable of France whose unmistakeable face is full of expression.
Credit must to go Boyd for a fairly lively production which contains plenty of authentic battle noises - some of them visibly startled members of the audience - and also extracts every bit of humour from Shakespeare's script.
It's a shame that instead of relying on his actors, he had to introduce stunts to try to make Henry V memorable rather than mediocre.
"Henry V" runs until March 14th
Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to The Roundhouse
Reviewer: Steve Orme