This is another favourite (and a contender for favourite history play – though Richard III keeps that particular crown), and I’m almost completely convinced that it’s an impossible play to fuck up. I don’t recall seeing any truly awful production. The most recent three stage versions I’ve seen show its power as well as the potential that lies within the material for directors; Antic Disposition’s World War One concept made it an especially moving affair (all the more so in the austere setting of Southwark Cathedral), the Globe Ensemble’s recent version (starring Sarah Amankwah) was one of my highlights of the outdoor season, and the Barn Theatre’s modern take was smart & very engaging.
Michael Witmore (director of the Folger Shakespeare Library) was on hand to introduce this week’s play, live from Capitol Hill – fitting for a play with politics so deeply entrenched. Henry V was written around the same time as Hamlet, and saw Shakespeare continuing his enjoyment of writing about English history; in writing terms, the play forms part of the second tetralogy (with Richard II and Henry IV parts one & two). What Witmore believes is important to ask yourself during the course of the play is “Am I seeing Hal or am I seeing Henry V?” – basically, are there any mischievous moments coming through, or has the wayward prince been completely replaced with a responsible & mature king? Because over the course of the Henriad Hal has gone through a “reformation”, and it’s interesting to see just “how reformed Hal really is” – particularly given Henry IV’s constant worry about “heavenly payback” in the wake of him usurping Richard II’s throne. As ever, it’s important to note that these history plays are Shakespeare’s versions of events rather than the gospel truth; coming from Washington, D.C. (US politics central), there’s no better comparison with the present day than Lin Manuel Miranda and his concept for Hamilton – both are stories a couple of centuries out of the writer’s lifetime which put their spin on events in order to present them in a certain way. A conceit that doesn’t go out of fashion.
The play begins early in Henry V’s reign, and he is deliberating with various advisors about the merits in a possible military campaign in France; is it worth risking the Scottish borders in his absence, just to prosecute ancestral claims to the French throne? A ‘gift’ of tennis balls from the Dauphin seems to tip the king over the edge – he doesn’t want to let that insult lie, and is keen to prove himself on the international stage. So off to war it is, and that includes former associates Pistol, Nym & Bardolph (who fail to cover themselves in glory). Following early struggles, the English troops eventually succeed in taking over the town of Harfleur; the losses suffered, however, change Henry’s plans – they move along the coast instead of heading for Paris. Surrounded and outnumbered at Agincourt, the night before the decisive battle sees the king walking through the camp in disguise, perhaps hoping to hear unknowing praise from his soldiers but actually facing some uncomfortable truths. Can he bear the burden of the crown?
What I haven’t mentioned in the synopsis is the presence of the Chorus. Throughout Henry V the Chorus pops up to give a brief introduction first to the play, and also to the act ahead; a true theatrical device that can make the main action feel like a play within a play, depending on how it’s presented. They remind us to activate our imaginations to conjure up the thousands of extra soldiers, specific locations, and anything else that a theatre production may not be able to put in front of the audience’s faces.
A popular move seems to be to share the lines out amongst the cast, so having all the players almost advocating for the play at one point or another (and not needing to shell out for another actor!). However, nothing of the sort from TSMGO, who instead brought back the wonderful Alice Merivale to use these monologues as opportunities to explain what’s going on in simple terms – think a chalk-drawn map on a blackboard, Cheddar vs. Brie. These smart visual aids and her bright & engaging delivery made these sections a pure joy to watch, establishing the importance of the Chorus from her very first appearance.
To be honest though, I could probably have written an entire post about Ruth Page’s performance as Henry V. Her previous impressive turn as Clifford in Henry VI, part three meant that we TSMGO regulars didn’t need any convincing when we saw her name on the cast list – and, as always, I’m definitely in favour of giving the kingly roles to women as much as possible! It’s a shame this is something that still gets debated, but hopefully any doubters were watching this show as it should be more than enough to convince them. Page’s strength & composure as the negotiating monarch in the early scenes was countered by her energy & attacking spirit leading the troops into battle; her St Crispin’s Day speech was as moving as it was motivating, and I found myself constantly on the verge of tears as she made her masterful way through each & every speech in the play. Her performance was rounded off perfectly as shades of the old Hal resurface during the wooing of Katherine, replete with cheesy lines and an attempted handshake to seal the deal. I really do hope she gets to follow up this performance with a stage run some day.
Naturally, there were plenty of brilliant supporting performances as well, with Roanna Lewis (Fluellen), Nicholas Halliwell (Warwick), and Eleanor Neylon (the dandy Dauphin) all standing out. Nat Kennedy was also fantastic to watch, particularly as the final incarnation of Bardolph, brandishing two different cucumbers during the play – one more threatening than the other!
I’m running out of superlatives for The Show Must Go Online. Each show is exceptional, and manages to improve upon the previous week in as many ways as possible; it’s almost indescribable at this point, thanks to a creative team absolutely on top of their game. The familiarity of regulars mixed with the welcome introduction of a wealth of new actors adds to the community feel that you get as a digital groundling, meaning there is a real anticipation of the casting announcement every week – a feeling that has been understandably hard to come by in recent times.
Next week: Julius Caesar
Henry V was broadcast on 22 July 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page. The Show Must Go Online merchandise is available from Redbubble. If you’d like to watch the history cycle in historical order, the team have created a YouTube playlist to enable you to glide seamlessly from King John through to Henry V.