A mischievous take on Shakespeare's patriotic war play from the RSC
It can be hard to get excited about ‘Henry V’ these days: Shakespeare’s patriotic war play barely seems to be off our stages – just this week the Open Air Theatre announced a production for next year. And though this RSC take transfers from Stratford with glowing reviews, the third and final part of the company’s ‘King and Country’ cycle – soon to play in its entirety at the Barbican – is the lowest key entry, lacking a big name like David Tennant (‘Richard II’) or Antony Sher (‘Henry IV’), with Alex Hassell reprising his role as the swashbuckling king.
But of course, it’s a delight. Director Gregory Doran brings his usual meticulousness to bear, but I didn’t expect the production to be so funny. There are a lot of jokes in ‘Henry V’, but to be honest they’re mostly rubbish and restricted to sub plots and minor characters (Welsh people must surely die a little inside each time leek-obsessed officer Fluellen makes his appearance).
But it’s the deft comic thoughtfulness as to the role of the Chorus that really makes this production. Often the character does little more than introduce the play, but here Oliver Ford Davies’s doddery old boy steals every scene as he potters about, commenting on and interfering with the action, even at one point being told to jog on by the assembled ranks of warring British and French soldiers. If his lightly post-modern ‘wooden o’ prologue speech is a little billet-doux to the theatre, then Doran expands the part into a full-blown – if cheeky – romance. And other stuff is funny too: the droning clergymen at the start are funny; the French are very funny; and there is a brilliantly irreverent conclusion to the king’s incognito bet with one of his soldiers that reduced the entire room to shocked laughter.
So it’s a lot of fun, but the lead is taken seriously. I have yet to catch Hassell in ‘Henry IV Parts 1 + 2’, but he’s great standalone, a new king shrewd enough to use his youth and hard-partying reputation as a weapon – he often looks callow and out of his depth, only to abruptly take ruthlessly decisive action. Yet it’s not all a facade: in court there’s a fury in his eyes, the look of a caged animal who only finds release and purpose on the bloody fields of Agincourt. A big, human performance that anchors this enjoyably mischievous night.