Henry V on the BBCHistoryTelevision

  • Pete Orford

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

Henry V, dir. Thea Sharrock, 21 July 2012 on BBC 2

By Pete Orford

Hmm. Henry V was always going to be a bit of a deal breaker here. While the other plays in this series have all been previously adapted for television, Henry V has the double whammy of Olivier and Branagh’s on-screen precedents setting two very different benchmarks for all subsequent adaptations to try and match. The director can either meet the challenge head-on or change the rules and present a completely different beast altogether. And so The Hollow Crown came to a close with “The Tragedy of Henry V”. The surprisingly downbeat ending of the play, wherein the chorus alerts us of Henry’s early death was projected back to the very beginning of this production, which opens with Henry’s funeral and makes it clear to us all that everything we are about to see is going to prove futile – Tom Hiddleston’s Henry is living on borrowed time.

There were some bold cuts and changes made. In particular, the cutting of the traitor’s scene raised my eyebrows somewhat; the scene is commonly leapt upon in post-world war productions to show the murky side of war and identifying enemies, but this production did not seem in a hurry to point out any particular villain in the piece –  instead, just about everyone was tragic in their own way, but what surprised me most was how subdued they all were. The battle at Harfleur was reminiscent of Branagh’s film in looks – the murky night scenes, the Eastcheap crew huddled on the floor, but here, as elsewhere, Henry’s speeches, masterpieces of rhetoric as they are, were transformed from rabble rousing rants to individual addresses with an almost pleading nature – forgetting his own mantra that humility is best adopted in peace, not war. Both here and in the Crispin’s day speech, Hiddleston almost made himself giddy spinning around after each line to address the next one to a different face in the crowd, trying to secure each potential vote from the multitude. Anton Lesser’s Exeter was rather resigned and melancholic and Paterson Joseph, swapping his Brutus for York, regularly appeared to be holding back the tears in a production where we were constantly having the message reinforced of how sad everything was, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so: the human cost of Harfleur was shown in the downcast faces of the French citizens; the English forces were wading in mud;  between battles they were seen burying the bodies of those killed by the environment rather than the enemy; not to mention the doleful Celtic melody that played throughout (interesting choice given the lines – cut in this production – of Henry’s precautions to “lay down our proportions to defend against the Scot” while they are across the continent); right up to the production’s final shot, where, after once more showing Henry’s funeral, and hearing the words of the chorus, we had the death of Henry reiterated to us again (in case we missed it) with a text summary. By this point I was thoroughly depressed, and in no doubt that this was the director’s intention, though the constant emphasis upon the tragedy of events did threaten the pace of the play at several points.

Given the cutting of rumour and the epilogue from last week’s production, I did wonder how this series would cope with the highly theatrical and artificial device of the chorus and whether it would be cut altogether. Instead, any references to the stage were cut, and the lines read as a voice-over, which did render a bit of a docu-drama feel to the proceedings, but this was redeemed with the interesting innovation of the doubling of the boy and the chorus. This did in turn mean an awful lot of weighty, meaningful looks were given either by the boy or to the boy at several points, which only really made sense after you’d seen the whole thing. It also meant – another controversial cut – that the killing of the “poys and the luggage” was missing, making Henry’s retaliation of killing the French prisoners an unwarranted act of aggression. Still, the grand reveal of the boy as the chorus did offer some positiveness in showing that Henry, as he predicted, would be remembered (with four syllables of course).

I think this is destined to be a controversial production. I was more impressed with the all-round delivery of this production in its looks and quality than I was with Richard II; the dialogue-free scenes included to illustrate what was otherwise simply talked about – Bardolph stealing holy relics, the English forces preparing and signing up for war – did not feel like intrusions, nor patronising, but rather a utilisation of the medium to enrich the story.  So what it did, it did well, but the question which I think will divide viewers is whether what it did was any good in the first place. Should Henry V really be so tragic? Was the suppression of so many of the comic scenes a justified loss or a cut too far? Should there be any glory in Henry’s campaign? It was definitely an experiment worth trying, but – forgive me – I’m sticking to Branagh for now.

Finally, a word on this series and lack of continuity, building on the discussion so far on the previous three parts. Yes, Falstaff popped up briefly here, and Bardolph, Pistol and Henry were all played by the same actors again as before, but the boy was not. York who volunteers to lead the army in Henry V was once Aumerle who planned to murder Henry’s father in Richard II – a perfect opportunity to draw the plays together and show the success of Henry V’s reign in conquering the civil broils that caused havoc during the rule of his predecessors, and one that was missed. I’ve always been an advocate for embracing the histories as individual dramas, but if you are going to present them as a series, then at least go all the way – link it together and make it into one story.


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