Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe, 8 June 2012 Dir. Dominic Dromgoole

The most direct connection between this production of Henry V and the other shows in the Globe to Globe season was the appearance on stage of a band of musicians who welcomed the audience and set the tone for the evening. When an actor then came to the front of the stage to announce that this production was the last one in a Festival which had seen actors from all over the world perform the entire Shakespeare canon it seemed somewhat superfluous. This framing of the play was unnecessary since the audience in attendance seemed to be very different from the ones I had seen in the space for the past six weeks. The audience members were quiet, attentive, polite and happy to be entertained on a not particularly warm summer evening. This was in stark contrast to the audiences that had filled the theatre over the previous weeks. While the Globe to Globe audiences were passionately engaged in the events on stage and greeted each troupe of actors with rapturous applause, the crowd at Henry V seemed to be welcoming home an old friend. The reaction seemed subdued in comparison to the tension and excitement that reverberated from the rafters during many of the visiting productions. But each audience for the Festival was also very different, and wonderfully so. In a sense I felt quite unusual and quite privileged viewing Henry V as the culmination of the Festival since it was clear that there were not many people on that June evening who were seeing it in this context.

Henry V is a problematic play to perform anywhere in the UK at the best of times since it has been produced to celebrate national patriotism as often as it has been used to critique current leaders and public support of foreign conflicts that encourage identity formation through conquest. Dromgoole’s production steered a fairly safe course between these two extremes and managed to thoroughly entertain its audience while casting a questioning eye on the issue of British nationalism in the same week that the Queen’s Jubilee flotilla graced the Thames just outside the theatre. This production had been on a journey of its own touring the country before opening in London. Built into the play is a debate between Scottish, Irish and Welsh characters as to their respective claim to and responsibility for the King’s cause. In this production the debate was enlivened by exaggerated, somewhat nostalgic representations of these three nations. In a summer when the Union Jack is almost impossible to avoid this genial approach to the play’s internal turmoil seemed to hit a tone of irony that avoided offence through its good intentions. Nothing in this production of the play was to be taken too seriously.

The central performance by Jamie Parker as Henry V leads on from this actor’s very successful presentation of the young prince Hal in the Globe’s productions of Henry IV Part 1 and 2, which not only filled the theatre at Bankside but were broadcast to cinemas across the country and sold on DVD. The evolution of the young King into a warrior and diplomat was convincing primarily because of Parker’s earnestness and compassion in the role. He clearly struggled with the deaths, not only of the traitors he discovers in his ranks at the beginning of the play, but also his old Eastcheap drinking pals. Parker’s other high profile role in The History Boys also played on his affability and his desire not to rock the boat. But to be honest very little time is spent looking backwards in this production as the King marches on to the final battle at Agincourt. The play’s big speeches were delivered in an almost bashful way which, in the case of the iconic final line of the ‘Once more unto the breech’ soliloquy, required actors in the audience to join in and cry out ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George’ to back up the King. Dromgoole seemed to take to heart the preceding line which indicates that ‘the game’s afoot’ and asks the soldiers and audience to ‘follow your spirit’.  Parker’s King seems to draw up the rear of this charge rather than lead it.

The most striking element of this production, then, was the role of the women. Three actresses each played two parts, doubling their presence on stage in interesting and telling ways. Brid Brennan played the Chorus and Queen Isabel, two positions of authority, Olivia Ross took on the roles of Princess Katherine and the Boy and Lisa Stevenson enacted Hostess Quickly and Alice. Having the action on the battlefield bookended by scenes of domesticity and diplomacy which were dominated by the women made clear that this was not just a world for the men. The fact that all of the action was explained to the audience by a female Chorus linked it to many of the other productions in the Globe to Globe season which put forward strong female characters who interacted with the audience in a very personal way. However, in some ways it was Olivia Ross who provided the moral centre of the conflict as the boy who is killed by the French and the future Queen of the realm; she seemed to be the touchstone of this production. The fact that she looked ever so slightly like another Royal Kate was entirely a coincidence I am sure.

 

Dr Christie Carson
Reader in Shakespeare and Performance

 Department of English, Royal Holloway University of London