January 22, 1976: Shakespeare, King Henry V

Aldwych Theatre

A splendid, moving, and altogether grand production by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Henry V, with Alan Howard in the title role. It demonstrates all over again how actable Shakespeare is and how well his plays work when directors find their inspiration intrinsically in the work itself. Here the director, Terry Hands, seems to have begun with the Chorus and has determined to work on the audience’s imaginary forces. The play begins with all the actors in undistin­guished modern dress. Halfway through the scene between Ely and Winchester, one notices a gold cross pendant on Winchester’s chest. Then, in the following scene, with the King still in modern dress, the emissary from France arrives in full medieval garb, and thus the play works its way into full costume, except for the  Chorus, who remains gray-suited and distinct. In the matter of staging in general the idea is carried out by having actors on stage in scenes in which they don’t appear: since we have seen them first as actors on a stage, the transitions into scenic reality always carry with them the exhortation to imagine — and in this way we see imagination fulfilled.

The same impetus seems to lie behind Alan Howard’s Henry. He is first a man, then a king; at the same time, he began first as an actor, and assumed the character of king. Hence his speeches, his big moments, have the double quality of genuineness and positive artifice. He is not a king of show, but an utterly gen­­uine man, faced with a fearful responsibility whose dimensions dawn on him only gradually. The great scenes of the play form a linked chain of moments in which the king is called upon to do what he has never done before — and what he may at times find quite loathsome, even nauseating — for the sake of a cause greater than himself. Although Howard seemed to reach his top vocal range too quickly, and in fact does not have a really great range vocally,  his control of emotion is sure and constant. He may have been a little hoarse; his lower register sounds more harsh than I had remembered from previous performances in Troilus and Cressida and The Revenger’s Tragedy. But then this play makes inord­inate demands. Howard avoids the tour de force approach entirely; in some sense it is a demythologizing performance, though never a debunking one. And that is true of the production as a whole. There has been no apology made for the play’s considerable patriotism, and at the same time the director has seen that the appeal to the imagination is in no proper sense an apology for the inadequacy of the theatre but rather an opportunity to find out where its true qualities lie.

The best scenes are in the middle of the play, during Harfleur in the battle of Agin­court. The RSC does these things splendidly, yet with great discipline. It is a real pleasure to see complicated pieces of technical ingenuity — raised sections of the stage floor angled to represent the walls of Harfleur; great floorcloths which become gaily colored pavilions — work, and work flawlessly. There are twelve musicians and fine music with no clichés, miraculously, despite near misses. And there are some very fine performances, notably Richard Moore as Pistol, Trevor Peacock as Fluellen, and Carolle Rousseau as Kate in a performance that shows how much can be done to enliven a character that seems so wooden on the page. And the wooing scene is no anticlimax in this production, but rather still another place where the king must do what must be done and puts his whole effort into winning a beautiful woman who is his anyway by mere demand. Nothing comes easy to this king, yet he fails at nothing he attempts. There is a real freshness in this concept, and the play supports him well. It holds the stage and the audience except for minor moments, as in the Mistress Quickly scenes, in which Maureen Pryor was disappointing, and in some parts of Howard’s long speeches, where there seemed insufficient variety and something of a loss of meaning in specific lines, yet overall a wonderfully spirited performance that gives the play its due while finding some new ideas and what it has to say about kingly duty, author­ity, and the relationships between man and man. As its theme, Henry’s phrase “this band of brothers” works, although they are not always a happy few.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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