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Henry V

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Roundhouse
(2008)

Production photo by Ellie Kurttz

There is much to enjoy in Michael Boyd's Henry V, which forms part of the RSC's History Plays sequence at the Roundhouse. However it makes more of an impression for great moments and individual flourishes than for the play as a whole.

This may be in part due to the casting of Geoffrey Streatfeild, who is an unimposing young King, often hardly distinguishable in his black garb from the noblemen around him; and on one famous occasion very reasonably mistaken by one of his soldiers for a jumped up colleague.

Even so, for close to 3½ hours a packed house was rewarded for their efforts in coming to see the play. In some cases, these were very great. The person sitting next to the reviewer, who has seen the whole sequence, queued for four hours and apparently got into a fight almost reminiscent of some of those at Agincourt when a handful of over-enthusiastic Shakespeare lovers attempted to barge past her to the front of the returns queue.

The scene is set by Forbes Masson's animated Scottish chorus. He regularly appears to breathe life into proceedings as well as introducing the odd witty anachronism since surely the Bard did not ever refer to a railway shed in his writings?

What he did offer his audiences was a series of unforgettable characters of every class and nature who collectively build up a picture of the England and France of his own time and a few generations before.

Early on, those who have seen Henry IV will be surprised to learn that the drunken boy Prince of that play has, on the death of his father, matured into a man worthy to be called King and lead his country in battle.

With the first conspiracy of his reign seen off in a triple execution, Henry turned his attention to France, a country that he naturally regards as part of his inheritance and, in no time, is taking a small army to war there.

The British spirit is exemplified by a few diverse groupings. At the bottom of the pile are the drunken low-lives, Nym, Bardolph and Pistol. In order, they are played by Keith Dunphy as a morose, often unintelligible Irishman; Julius D'Silva as a literary poxy but rather lovable loudmouth; and Nicholas Asbury as a very dignified, actorly coward.

The officers are a rum, multinational group led by a man whom the King might have done well to kill off himself. Jonathan Slinger playing Fluellen is the star of the evening, shining so brightly that even the King disappears in his confident, hilarious but very loyal presence. If one did not know the past and future, it would not be difficult to predict that this man would take over the world, as indeed the actor does in a sense, playing both Richard II and Richard III.

While the English exist on and beneath ground level, for some reason the French, personified by John Mackay's androgynous Dauphin, live suspended on trapezes from which they make merry, lazy quips before eventually being brought to servitude by the English following dreadful losses at the Battle of Agincourt.

Where Michael Boyd and his designer Tom Piper really excel on this occasion is in the dramatic set pieces and particularly the battles. It will take a long time for the lead-in to the "once more unto the breach" cry to Henry's troops to be forgotten. After relative calm, suddenly there is a massive explosion as English soldiers emerge from beneath the smoke-filled stage to face a bombardment both from the French and the mouth of their leader.

Similarly, although it does not last long, Agincourt decked out with streamers, ladders and trapezes is equally dramatic and gives a real feel of what it must have been like to live in a war zone some 600 years ago.

The King gets his reward on earth, as he must surely have expected to do in heaven (though after murdering surrendered Frenchmen maybe he actually went to hell) with the hand in marriage of Alexia Healy's beautiful French Lady Katherine, which sealed a peaceful alliance between the two countries.

Michael Boyd must be absolutely delighted that this venture has proved such a success in London. It is really heartening to know that in the land of the Wii, there are still many who are willing to devote long evenings or whole days to the enjoyment of William Shakespeare.

Every ticket from start to finish has sold and had there been greater capacity, such is the popularity of his marvellous, lively renditions of plays that are not always popular, that many more Londoners would have loved the opportunity to attend.

Steve Orme reviewed this production in Stratford and Robert Tantich looked at it as part of his review of the first part of the History Cycle

Reviewer: Philip Fisher