Henry V dir. John-Robert Partridge for Tread the Boards Theatre Company at the Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, England, April 2017.
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh, University of Birmingham.
I should begin this review by admitting that Henry V is my favourite Shakespeare play. In the current political climate, a highly jingoistic tale about English patriotism is unlikely to meet with much approval, yet the self-congratulatory veneer is thin indeed in this history-play; Fluellen says it most directly when, after Henry’s order to kill the French prisoners, he compares the king to “Alexander the Pig” (4.7.12-3). Throughout the many scene-changes, the Chorus performs a task allocated today to the spin-doctor, desperately glossing the ruler’s increasingly horrible deeds in positive terms. The Harfleur scene offers one of the most immediate examples of that contrast, when the Chorus describes England, left behind by the “culled and choice-drawn cavaliers”, (3.0.24) as “Guarded with grandsires, babies, and old women”, (3.0.20) an eerily similar group to the “shrill-shrieking daughters; […] fathers […] naked infants [and] mad mothers” (3.3.35-9) Henry threatens at Harfleur. The play, then, becomes an investigation of the inner workings of ultra-nationalism and our leaders’ performative self-fashioning, rather than a pandering to those dual narratives.
As the 2015 RSC production and the 2012 Hollow Crown version bear witness to, this dynamic dichotomy falters when Henry is portrayed as a soft, quiet person, or when the jingoism is toned down. Allowing the audience to distance themselves from the infectious spirit of the play lets them disregard exactly how far such infection can creep in. While this production strategy may permit the audience to avoid asking awkwardly introspective questions after the lights go up, by so doing it miscarries one of the main purposes of the play.
Tread the Boards plays the play straight as an iron rod, and with astoundingly solid performances throughout. I was especially impressed by David McCarthy (Bardolph, Fluellen, Dauphin) and Edward Manning, (Canterbury, King of France, Nym) who slipped between their different roles with admirable ease. Ashleigh Dickinson was surprisingly moving in her remorse as the treacherous Scroop, and Dru Stephenson managed with aplomb the difficult mixture of pathos and bathos in her eulogy over Falstaff as Mistress Quickly. John-Robert Partridge was suitably unapologetic as Henry, Andrew Woolley made a stoic Exeter, Matt Preece a leering and choleric Macmorris, and Joanne Amaral an utterly innocent Katherine. My companion, Louis Osborne, himself an actor, recognised signs of insecurity in the Chorus, (Dawn Bush) but was too engrossed in her contagious enthusiasm to mind.
This production carried an obvious debt to Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 movie: birds chirp in the background as Katherine and Alice embark on their language lesson; Henry, entirely unnecessarily, carries the dead boy; the king of France joins Henry and Katherine’s hands at the end. The RSC production lived on in the many documents handed out by Canterbury in the first act, and hints of the Globe’s 2012 Henry V by way of the RSC popped up as well, in the decision to make Captain Jamy (Andrew Woolley) incomprehensible. None of these decisions particularly appeal to me, as they seem to belabour points that are brought out succinctly through the actors’ craft. I do, however, appreciate how these moments place the production in conversation with the more recent history of the play.
In conclusion, Tread the Boards’ Henry V runs until 23 April, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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