Henry V occurs on the rim of war. It’s twice enclosed: externally by Shakespeare’s own history cycle, completing the first tetralogy and preceded by its trilogy of grim sequels; internally by the narrating chorus that stands outside of its narrative, setting the scene more literally and directly than anything in the canon.
The action takes place, as Chris Goode elucidates in his superb theatrical essay The Forest and the Field, within the great ‘O’ of the round theatre scaffold, as well as on the fringes and cool-spots of the siege of Harfleur and battle of Agincourt. These factors, and more within the text, give it a peculiarly over-watched quality, a sense of self-inquiry and reflexivity that is unlike practically any other play. For a work with such a reputation for bombast and jingoism, its greatest success lies in its relentless contemplation of its own grimly warring internals.
That doesn’t, if it isn’t already clear, necessarily make for the most satisfying experience, but it does make Henry V a braver and more interesting choice than is immediately apparent to close the Michael Grandage Company’s first West End season. More honest than bold, more sturdy than exciting, the three out of five productions that I’ve seen have been the definition of whelming, none quite escaping the slightly snoozy orbit of those rubbish GAP-catalogue-esque posters.
There’s plenty in Grandage’s production that’s tedious. There are moments in which six or seven boring people in cloaks stand in a semicircle and talk pretty boringly about pretty boring things for interminably long periods. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, it has the virtue of tradition, but it’s the sort of Shakespeare that could put a child or a candid adult off the Bard for life. For all the trims Grandage has imposed, there’s a stubborn plainness and mannerism to the early scenes of Dukes, Earls and Archbishops that’s utterly fidgetsome.
Compare it to the Unicorn Theatre’s re-imagining ‘for kids’ earlier in the autumn and you’ll make yourself dizzy. One made an audience cry with the pricking of a balloon, one almost sent it to sleep with a dozen of the country’s finest Shakespearean actors. One trod delicately over the text but with sureness in every step, the other paces the text with great galumphing strides but almost stumbles at the first hurdle.
Then there’s Jude Law himself, who’s almost faceless until his sojourn among the camp in Act IV. There’s a sort of gravitas to his Harry (not that you could believe anyone would call him Harry, he seems like the sort of person you’d call Mr Lancaster on the rare occasions you even bothered turning up to his Geography classes) but it’s the weight and solemnity of a statue rather than the bearing of an impressive, once impetuous ruler. His Crispin’s Day speech sees the first spark of something hotter, though it’s far from a great rendition, but it’s only really in his first moment of soul-searching following his confrontation with Williams that he registers as more than a palimpsest behind the verse.
Law is best in his final scene with Katharine, when he turns on the charisma, and something of his wilder, smoother days shines through. In a way the gear-change exaggerates rather than soothes the play’s own fractured final act, where broad comedy sits uncomfortably in the seat tragedy has just vacated and then squats there for slightly too long.
The meat of Henry V comes from Cheapside, rather than royalty, and its an element that Grandage has gone a long way towards perfecting. A great comic cast, headed up by Ron Cook’s blustering Pistol, fill the Falstaff-shaped gap in this late history, and prove the apparent subplots of the play to be among Shakespeare’s most profound and integrated uses of black comedy. Through Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, we see Mr Lancaster’s war from two removes, from the sidelines of the battlefield where these rough men squabble and pontificate, and from the perspective of the common man, expected to fight, bleed and die for a dubious war.
Shakespeare passes an extremely humane eye over the parallels that emerge between the drunken squabbles of poor men and the arcane tugging and warring of polity. As foolish as Pistol may be, when he contemplates his return to Cheapside, where his Mistress Quickly (an excellent Noma Dumezweni, doubling as Katharine’s handmaid) has died and the honour Mr Lancaster promised on the field of Agincourt already feels tarnished with the taste of leek, it’s clear that the band of brothers will quickly be disbanded when the war is over.
There’s excellent work from Jason Baughan here as Bardolph, Norman Bowman as Nym and Williams and Matt Ryan as Fluellen. Their scenes relocate the apparent concerns of Henry V, they present the low and usual level of the social strata which war cuts through and so temporarily disrupts. When themes such as Mr Lancaster’s religiosity fail to carry through and resonate, Shakespeare’s political satire continues to impress.
The one nod towards the contemporary in this largely traditional staging is the presentation of the Chorus, dressed somewhat inexplicably in a T-Shirt and backpack. Luckily, the part is performed by the always-watchable Ashley Zhangazha, and his delivery is excellent. Henry V conceals some of Shakespeare’s finest writing about theatre itself and his most evocative pleas to its power. Zhangazha’s delivery of lines such as ‘O, do but think/You stand upon the ravage and behold/A city on the inconstant billows dancing’ is shiver-inducing, and fitter by far than the laughable battle scenes, where men in armour rush from one wing to the other like the inhabitants of a Star Trek skirmish.
Maybe that’s the point. Caught in its own hall of mirrors, Henry V questions rather than confirms any perspective on the righteousness of its protagonist or his occupation. The hand of God is invoked so frequently that even Henry seems to question its existence or its placement in his heart of hearts. But the play’s truest and best qualities lie in its farce, its dark and bloody farce, that comments – and comments so directly, in a moral universe of misdirection and indecision – upon the dark and bloody farce of war.