March 19, 2001: Shakespeare, King Henry V

Barbican, directed by Edward Hall

Henry V, in a splendid, wonderful, and stirring production by the RSC, directed by Edward Hall (any relation to Peter Hall, I wonder? A son?) and with a fine, rough-hewn-faced actor named William Houghton in the title role.

The stage floor is a wooden “O,” painted some color between silver and battleship gray. A great structure of pipes, ladders, and platforms makes a centerpiece upstage; it becomes a wagon moving threateningly downstage in the smoke and confusion of the battle of Harfleur. There is music made up of a range of styles, from rock to folk to Parisian Boulevard (“La Vie En Rose” is one of them), and sung by the ensemble of soldiers who begin the play as a kind of makeshift chorus, sharing a division of the Chorus’s lines with some of the principals. Costumes are a sort of makeshift affair; enlisted men wear a kind of camouflage reminiscent of modern armies; principals wear more officer-like tunics; and the King himself is dressed in a spic-and-span gray wool uniform and a Sam Brown belt. Eccentrics like Pistol, Nym, and Bardolf wear unkempt, ragged variations on the theme.

I’ve seldom seen better ensemble playing. These men are true comrades, and it is no surprise that they bolster one another’s courage at critical moments and never back down no matter how bad the odds.

The director has recognized that this can be a very bloody play, and has also realized that it can be ruined by mere straightforward representation of that bloodiness. There is, to be sure, a noticeable amount of stage blood in evidence, on faces, arms, hands, legs, and trunks; at the same time there has been a certain abstract quality achieved in the rendering of it. During the battle scenes of the latter part of the play, four huge — punching bags, it seems, are strung up in the four quadrants of the stage; when it comes time for someone to be beaten or thrashed, the bags are struck instead of the victims, while the victims react as if they had actually been hit. This gives the violence a kind of symbolic signif­icance, a certain “power of indication,” I might call it, more than the actual pretense of blows on the head and body might do. In fact, I discern the possibility that the director has taken his cue from the well-known apology of the Chorus about the insufficiencies of the stage, exhorting the audience to “piece out our imperfec­tions with your thoughts” and to multiply whatever they see by a large imagin­ative factor. The key to successful staging of this play, then, is to represent things by signs and signals, so achieving ultimately a more satisfying rendering of fictive reality than a grosser naturalism ever could. A good example, a kind of exception that proves the rule, is the mock-present delivered to Henry by the French envoy. A rich-looking small chest is passed, and is opened. What is it? the King asks. “Tennis balls, my liege.” And we are shown two tennis balls mounted on a tiny revolve inside the box, like a music box figure minus the music: they turn steadily in a circle. Suddenly, in a kind of great choric response, garbage cans full of tennis balls are dumped onto the stage from heights at left, right, and upstage, drowning the stage with them. Thus do the two balls become a thousand.

William Houghton’s Henry is a wiry, canny, calculating man who knows where he has come from, where he must go, and what he really wants. He simply exudes will power and determination, whether he is urging his failing forces once more unto the breach (“dear friends,” he calls them, we note: not just “men”), laying down an ultimatum to the governor of Harfleur, punishing the three traitors (they are marched upstage and summarily dispatched with three well placed pistol shots — though out of our sight, if not of our hearing), promising the French forces at Agincourt that, though outnumbered, they will fight to the end, or making love to the princess of France and winning her as his bride (she has no choice, but still she is given one by this eminently tactful yet blatantly insistent royal suitor). He measures his words with the utmost care; he allows us to see the business he means in the twinkle of his eye and in his rock-solid posture. Never was there a more clear-sighted monarch than Houghton’s Henry. Never did a brilliant military strategist have greater charm or motives more open to view. And when we see him in his one moment of self-doubt, the night before the battle of Agincourt, when in soliloquy he laments that all responsibility ultimately falls “Upon the king,” the self-doubt is not of his own prowess or leadership, but of the spurious position he has ineluctably been placed in by the usurpation of Richard’s crown by his father Henry Plantagenet. His promise to God to do even more to make amends for that grievous action than he has already done for the body and soul of Richard, if only God will not visit him with retribution for it on the morrow, is authentic and heart-felt. And it reaps a glorious reward on the field of battle, where, historians tell us, the English losses were miraculously small.

Henry disappears, abruptly, at two points late in the play. The first is when he prematurely walks off the field of battle, leaving his troops behind: the truth is, he has a costume change and much cleaning up to do for the wooing scene with Kate (it’s probably just as well that English audiences don’t get the obscene double entendre in Kate’s French pronunciation of “gown”: con). The second departure occurs at the very end of the play, even as Henry is savoring his double victory over French forces and a French princess: he simply walks offstage and out through the audience. Immediately we see we have arrived at the epilogue — which, in a nice touch, is begun in perfect English by the actress who has played French-speaking Kate so well (Catherine Walker).

That epilogue, of course, is the agent of a sudden shift of tone that manages to undermine, or at least to place in sobering historical context, the present victory over the French by explaining that Henry did not enjoy the fruits of victory for long (in fact, he died of dysentery on the battlefield just a few years later), and was succeeded by an infant Henry VI, crowned king of England and France while still in his swaddling clothes, who proceeded to lose all that his father had gained.

Much of the historical detail in the epilogue has been cut, deemed anticlim­actic (no doubt), but they keep the part about the chronicle of King Henry VI as has been acted many times on their stage. As stage history that is of course true: Shakespeare wrote the historically second tetralogy (1, 2, and 3 Henry VI and Richard III) before the Richard IIHenry IVHenry V sequence. More to the point, even, the RSC is mounting all eight plays this season, under the collective and elegant title This England. The phrase is of course the rhetorical climax to John of Gaunt’s deathbed encomium to his native land, that “jewel set in the silver sea.” I am lucky enough to be seeing three of the eight plays: I close my current visit on Saturday with the two parts of Henry IV, in which William Houghton plays his same character, while still uncrowned.



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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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