Band of Brothers

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Raymond Meadows in 1913 and Jeremy Franklin in 2013

Raymond Meadows in 1913 and Jeremy Franklin in 2013

At the back of the stage were three panels showing images of old boys from 1913 onwards. I was aware of the St George’s flag being included as part of the design. As I peered more closely, I noticed that some of the photographs of the boys had a similar red cross of St George through them. There were 69 students at King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon in 1913 when they did a production of Henry V; 7 of those students were killed in action within the following two years.

One hundred years later, in memory of those old boys, Edward’s Boys, the school’s current playing company, directed up by Deputy-Headmaster, Perry Mills, performed Henry V again. This time their production took place in the RSC’s Swan Theatre. It was packed to the rafters last evening for a very special event in the life of the school and in the Stratford community. It was primarily an occasion of remembrance, but it was also, importantly, an occasion of theatrical retrieval, the culmination of research into the school’s own archive and also the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A box of photographs from the 1913 production was discovered by the school’s archivist, Richard Pearson, in the summer of 2005. Five years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s
music
for the 1913 Stratford Memorial Theatre production (where The Swan Theatre now is) was discovered and identified here in the Library of The Shakespeare Centre. The Edward’s Boys’s new production succeeded in putting these two pieces of history together and, in doing so, made history afresh.

There was much to admire in the show. The Chorus – expertly played and excellently spoken by former KES student Tim Pigott-Smith – was a headmaster, sitting at an Elizabethan-style school desk, thinking about past pupils, a Goodbye, Mr Chips figure presenting a history lesson and re-opening old wounds. The simplicity of the design effortlessly evoked three time periods: 1415, the First World War, and the present day – a mixture of school students and soldiers were present throughout. After King Henry’s ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’ speech, he was hoisted aloft, like a rugby-scrum player in the line-out. School rugby players came on to remove dead bodies of the traitors Sir Thomas Grey, Lord Scroop, and the Earl of Cambridge, and to hang the unfortunate Bardolph (Calum Mitchell). This trans-historical schoolboy-soldier narrative was reflected in the music, directed by Andrew Henderson. We heard Vaughan Williams’s evocation of the medieval as well as school hymns we might associate with the early twentieth century and songs reminiscent of Oh! What a Lovely War. So it was when King Henry was praying on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt that he found spiritual strength in the sound of John Bunyan’s ‘He who would valiant be’ sung by boys’ voices across the centuries.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s (Henry Hodson) long speech about Salic law was illustrated by the Bishop of Ely (Henry Edwards) with chalk on a blackboard. Names were written and connected together with lines drawn in a flash, a simple and hilarious device, and one which brilliantly pointed to the church legitimising an illegal foreign invasion. Canterbury and Ely also appeared during the rest of the show as ghastly reminders of war and the establishment. They ceremoniously annointed the English soldiers with water and daubed them with mud before the battle.

In keeping with the staging practices of Edward’s Boys, the female parts were played by ‘boys’, most convincingly, with great comic, and at times pathetic, conviction. Mistress Quickly (Finlay Finch) exercised a compelling stillness during her scenes. Great fun was had during Princess Catherine’s (George Hodson) English lesson with her maid, Alice (Barnaby Bos). The rude-sounding English-French words (‘foot’ and ‘gown’) caused naughty schoolboy giggles between them, and there was an added play on words with ‘dildo’ being accidentally substituted for Shakespeare’s ‘D’elbow’ each time it was mentioned.

Captains MacMorris (Richard Storey) and Jamy (Jamie Hall) were clearly and comically delineated, and brilliantly led by George Matts’s charismatic Captain Fluellen, always ready to prove his point by pulling out an ancient looking school text-book. Jack Fenwick portrayed a hard, Chav-edged Pistol who carried the ambiance of the Eastcheap tavern around with him wherever he went. By contrast the French court took itself more seriously with more of a touch of the old-fashioned about it, except its modern-dressed, fashion-icon King Charles VI (Jonny Clowes), equally able to pose as well as direct his soldiers. Special mention should be made of the Boy (Charlie Walters): wide-eyed and vulnerable but with some of the best lines to speak on Shakespeare’s battlefield.

Jeremy Franklin’s King Henry V was compelling not only in the way he spoke and understood the lines, but in how he managed to charm and persuade the company around him. He was very much at the centre of this world, but it was a world which was held together by the sum of all its parts.

And there King Henry V stood, at the end of it, in front of the headmaster’s desk. A hundred years between one school production and the next had collapsed. The Chorus had once again finished remembering the dead. But there were the all too familiar sounds of First World War shells, still haunting the air, and there was a pile of school exercise books needing to be marked just to the headmaster’s left.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
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  • http://www.facebook.com/hannah.unwin.9 Hannah Unwin

    Hi Paul, Nice review. Looking forward to seeing the play on DVD as I am unable to get to the staged versions. How did the audience react to the production? As you said, there were so many different historical periods being portrayed at once, I imagine this must have induced some contemplative and somewhat nostalgic viewers. Hannah

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