A lesson in kingship: Henry V, Royal Shakespeare Company, live from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Alex Hassell as Henry
Alex Hassell as King Henry

Henry V is a play which, although set at a specific moment in time, always seems to be appropriated by the time in which it is performed. From its origins as a fantasy about martial male leadership in the final years of the weakening and increasingly unpopular Elizabeth I, to the rousing war-time patriotism of Olivier, to Nicholas Hytner’s anti-war modern dress rendering at the National Theatre in the year of the second Iraq War, Henry V, even more so than other plays, holds a mirror up to its audience, perhaps because its major theme of war remains (sadly) universal.

Gregory Doran’s new production for the RSC seems to accurately reflect our own current national confusion about war: we want to retain our influence in the wider world, but we don’t want to be dragged into another war. We vacillate between intervention (bombing Libya to support the rebellion against Ghadafi) and trying not to get involved (the current debates about Syria). Indeed, in the RSC’s trailer for this production, director Greg Doran describes the play as ‘a debate’ about war – neither pro nor anti, but still asking the questions.

Our Henry, on this occasion, is Alex Hassell, fresh from playing Henry’s younger incarnation, Prince Hal, in Doran’s earlier productions of Henry IV Part 1 and 2. (See here for my thoughts on one especially eventful performance of Part 1) Of course, the success of any production of this play turns on this central performance, and Hassell is very, very good. His is a notably youthful king, still very near the start of his reign. Hassell gives the sense throughout the play of a man learning to be a king – his Henry is a different man by the end of the play. Delivering the ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech on an empty stage (this is not a production which loads the stage with superfluous bodies) it feels almost as if he’s taking to himself – giving himself a pep talk in the correct behaviour for a warrior king. One of the things I loved about his earlier performance as Hal was the way his entire posture changed in response to his character’s experience, and he continues this here, especially in the opening scene, as he commits himself to war.

The approach of playing Henry as a ‘trainee’ king pays dividends in several ways. Not only does it fit with the overall approach of asking questions about war, but it helps make sense of the ‘wooing’ scene at the end of the play, in which Henry tries to win the heart of the French princess Katherine. I’ve often felt that the Henry we see here is at odds with the Henry we’ve seen in the rest of the play, but in this production it’s clear that this is another thing Henry has to learn, and Hassell manages to show how his character develops, even in the short space between the start of the scene and the ‘take me, take a king’ line, which becomes another example of how he’s growing into his role. It also gives Hassell the chance to show he’s as good at comedy as he is at heroics.

Jennifer Kirby as Princess Katherine
Jennifer Kirby as Princess Katherine

His partner in this scene is Jennifer Kirby, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite female interpreters of Shakespeare. Having seen her Lady Percy in Henry IV, she’s got a real knack for finding genuine humanity in roles that on the page can feel like tokens. She’s an utterly believable princess, caught between love for her homeland and the charming king she’s probably going to have to marry anyway. (It is probably helpful to the audience watching this scene that Hassell is terribly handsome – which heroic warrior kings of course should be, if they can possibly manage it).

The other thing about this scene is that it’s a perfect example of the slightly odd way in which the play flip-flops between near-tragedy – or at least very serious stuff – and outright comedy. In this scene, we go from the tragedy of the defeated nation to light-hearted wooing in few lines. In another example, Henry’s attempt at a post-Agincourt prayer is repeatedly interrupted by Fluellen, the comedy Welshman. The flow of the play is also broken by the Chorus (played by the wonderful Oliver Ford Davies as a cardigan-clad history teacher). Perhaps when it was originally written, Shakespeare felt the need to keep taking the focus away from the heroic deeds of his main protagonist, in case it was felt to be too critical of Elizabeth I, who only ever went to war begrudgingly, and then at the least possible financial cost. Many modern productions either de-emphasise some of these comic scenes, or cut them altogether, but here they’re given their full weight – it seems to fit with the sense of our own confusion about war, the way we go from the Chorus (described by Ford Davies as an ‘unreliable narrator’) talking about the heroism of soldiers to Pistol et al being anything but heroic.

And, talking of heroism – I’d like to end with a shout out to the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon team, especially Screen Director Robin Lough and the camera team. As ever, the camera work last night was beautiful. The close-ups, especially in the wooing scene, in particular, were beautifully timed.

Good work, all. Looking forward to the DVD now…

Henry V continues at Stratford, before transferring to the Barbican in London: http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/henry-v/?from=planner