Our visit to Stratford last week didn’t disappoint. It was our first trip to the theatre since the redesign: now it’s laid out like The Globe on the Southbank, but bigger, and made of modern, rather than traditional materials. In my case that meant sitting with a large iron pillar about a foot from my nose, but whilst that wasn’t ideal, it didn’t spoil the play.
At times Shakespeare’s plays are a series of tableaux, rather than a coherent narrative, and that is true of Henry V. This production emphasised that. It brought out all the comedy in a series of “low” scenes that interrupt the main narrative arc. They were very well done here, helped by the apron stage, which is a fantastic improvement on the old arrangement, allowing for more natural movement and varied interaction between the characters. These are great characters: Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, along with Mistress Quickly are stereotypes, or caricatures really – Shakespeare inking in the working classes – and whilst this group was portrayed in a conventional and convincing way, Sarah Parks brought a real sense of warmth to Mistress Quickly.
Later the comic scenes verge on what some would consider today as racism. They show us that the stereotypes of British nationality and the British scorn of French dandyism and self indulgence either pre-dated Shakespeare or were invented by him. We see these stereotypes again in the opening of The Merchant of Venice. The audience laughed the most about Jamy, the Scottish officer, who was hilariously garbled and incomprehensible. Perhaps that’s because we English feel a bit rejected by the Scots these days, now they want a divorce. Jennifer Kirby was very funny as Katherine – strangling the English words with her French accent, and introducing an element of bawdy. These comic scenes aren’t easy to present: the last Henry V that I saw, in 2012 at the Theatre Royal in Bath, was much less successful comically, and more tedious, even though it was done by The Globe Theatre.
The battle scenes in Henry V can also be regarded as set pieces – famous stirring speeches used to embody Englishness – or Britishness? We can probably all quote bits. Alex Hassell as Henry 5 delivered them all very well. The chorus too: his modern dress in this period production was a sensible choice and helpful to the audience. Again the poetry speaks for itself, and aren’t we lucky that we can read or see or hear it?
The play is about Henry, and regal politics, so a word on that to conclude. The scene with the bishops is always difficult, especially for a modern audience, as it’s based on the premise that all their legalese about who is the rightful King of France is incomprehensible: the confusion is not just because we don’t understand Shakespeare’s language any more. I found myself frustrated, and the punch line – that they are confused too – was nearly lost in all the mumbo jumbo. Interestingly the lack of conviction here also undermined Henry’s claim to the throne, intimating that it was based on pretty shaky grounds. I think you could say that there was an element of anti-royalism in this production – for me Henry came across as self-righteous and priggish, rather than inspirational, and the traitors scene – Scroop, Grey and Cambridge – emphasised this as I didn’t feel their treatment was deserved – it was political expediency – more David Cameron than Winston Churchill.