Shakespeare was just never meant to be this much fun. The general impression that one has of Shakespeares history plays is that they are worthy, dull things that one has to learn about at school. It has become apparent halfway through the cycle of history plays currently being presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company that no-one has told them this.
Edward Halls production of Henry V in the Barbican Theatre is full of life, dazzling and far funnier than should be possible.
This is the result of the fusion of an exciting, factory-like set with the actors walking around on a war memorial designed by Michael Pavelka, thoughtful lighting by Ben Ormerod and lively music both traditional from Simon Slater and also a series of songs. The initial view on hearing the songs is that they sound as if they could have been written by Billy Bragg. In fact, this turns out to be the case.
Bragg comes up with a couple of rollicking modern anthems that may differ from the music written by Sir William Walton for this play but which really place it firmly in the midst of contemporary England. In fact, one of the highlights of the play is as Henrys army prepares to fight and a football-like anthem is sung. This is accompanied by lager spraying from a lout in a football shirt and a first for Shakespeare - pogoing and moshing from members of the English army. None of this is in the text but it certainly adds life to the production.
As well as the special effects we also see modern dress outfits which for the English generally involve camouflage trousers. In the case of the French the costumes are post post-modern and looking like outfits from Star Wars or Fahrenheit 451.
Within this framework, the actors do more than just hold their own. It is not just the excellent William Houston in the title role who manages to shine. He uses the clipped tones of a modern monarch or politician, perhaps Edward VIII, sometimes veering dangerously close to sounding like Olivier or Brannagh. The supporting cast generally do a wonderful job, so many of them giving excellent cameos for example, Sam Cox as the Archbishop of Canterbury in an early speech and Catherine Walker playing her second French princess in the season. As Princess Catherine she gives a convincing impression of Edith Piaf followed by a French lesson which suggests that Miss Walker might have made a far better Eliza Doolittle than Martine McCutcheon.
Though the play lasts approximately 3¾ hours it goes off at a rollicking pace and contains few longeurs. One of William Houstons particular strengths is his ability to capture the audience during Henry's long and powerful speeches. It also helps that Shakespeare has given some of his better lines to Henry V and Houston renders them memorably.
He also shows very well the change from the young Prince Hal, carousing in the play about his father, to the mature young King who is able to turn the table on traitors and then to move from the narrow canvas of the Wars of the Roses to the wider one of European domination and the attack on France.
In the two key pre-battle speeches Houston rallies the troops wonderfully and Henry V must clearly have put terror into the hearts of the French.
While life at the French court remains pretty serious with King Charles VI played by David Acton and the Dauphin by Alexis Daniel trying to hold things together, on the English (or more correctly British) side soldiers seem to have far more fun. We see Fluellen as a slightly caricatured Welshman straight out of Dylan Thomas and Richard Bremmer as Pistol rendering the common man. They contrast with all of the nobles and royals who otherwise hold centre stage.
Fight director Terry King is the final star of the show as he manages to convey the terror and violence of war in contact-free dumb show.
The RSC is to be congratulated in giving Edward Hall the opportunity to put on this exciting modern production and this bodes well both for the second half of the history play season and also for Tantalus which Edward Hall has directed with his father Sir Peter for the RSC.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher