The reign of Henry V was a small oasis in a century of civil strife. There was the ever-present threat from the weasel Scot but little else to ruffle the feathers of a land settling down to a decade of relative calm. What did the sovereign choose to do during this sunny interlude? He invaded another country and exported all the aggression and misery abroad.
Michael Boyd neither basks in the cosy myth of English winning against all the odds or tries to subvert those aspects of Shakespeare’s play that have been seized on in times of national need. He gives it to us straight in a swift, clear-as-a-bell production that entertains from beginning to end.
He’s helped by Shakespeare you actually have to distort what’s written quite a bit if you want to present Henry V as a merely patriotic tub-thumping pageant. What we see of the glorious island race of Albion is venal clergymen influencing the king to their own ends, lower orders that bash each other up on a whim, homegrown traitors dealt with ruthlessly, an army made up of thieves, cut-throats and cowards and a king prepared to skewer babies on spikes. There’s an obsession with money from coffer-driven bishops to soldiers squabbling over a groat and a monarch who barters a foreign princess as part of a negotiated settlement. It’s not a pretty picture.
If it doesn’t rise to the greatest heights of inspiration that Boyd achieves elsewhere in this eight-play cycle, Henry V gets fairly close with characteristic audacity and theatrical flare. The high-flown French drop from the flies and drip onto the stage like melting candles and battles explode in the face of the audience, none of whom are more than 20 yards from the stage in the adroit reconstruction of Stratford’s Courtyard Theatre inside the Roundhouse.
Boyd doesn’t go the route of up-to-the-minute relevance, although a resonating image is row upon row of coffins dragged in after Agincourt. It’s on the backs of the dead that a platform is cobbled together for the peace to be thrashed out.
There’s something mighty powerful about an ensemble that has worked on these plays for two years. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s virile king, garbed in grey like everyone else, is fairly nondescript, which makes sense of his ability to blend in and dole out a little touch of Harry in the night. It’s no wonder that Lex Shrapnel’s Williams is taken in by the disguise. What we see from Streatfeild is a growth in the ensuing scene; it is his dealing with the common man that leads him to the pivotal point, where he realises the responsibility he has taken on with his imperialist adventure, and we see a king emerge from the encounter. With this maturity, victory follows swiftly.
Alexia Healy has dipped below the radar so far in this cycle but here she gets her chance to shine, giving us a delightful Princess Katherine, amusingly sexy and endearing. Of a wealth of acting brawn, it’s Jonathan Slinger’s Fluellen that stands out, a rounded, funny and truthful portrayal.
Henry V is one of the plays in Shakespeare’s double tetralogy that stands alone; being part of a much bigger enterprise only amplifies its strengths.