After Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV comes Henry V, the latest in the RSC’s cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays. Having already seen three of these, I was excitedly anticipating Henry V, and thankfully I was not disappointed.
Gregory Doran once again directs, and the production takes the same kind of classical approach we saw in the previous history plays, with simple but appropriate period costume and a mostly bare stage, with projections (from Stephen Brimson Lewis) and lighting (by Tim Mitchell) establishing location and setting the scene. Unlike the previous histories, however, we get to see more of the inner workings of the theatre: at several points the entire back wall of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is visible. It’s true that Henry V is much more self-consciously theatrical than the other plays in the cycle, and Oliver Ford Davies, shuffling onto the stage as the Chorus, red scarf around his neck, establishes this straight away, exhorting us to imagine the fields of France and the vast armies in front of us. There’s a wonderful moment right at the start: as Davies stands by Henry’s throne and lightly examines his crown, Alex Hassell as Henry storms onto the stage, grabs it off him and stalks off with a glare in his eyes.
This play has been interpreted in so many ways over the years: pro-war, anti-war, and everything in between. In Doran’s production, war is neither good nor bad: it just is. This allows us to concentrate on Shakespeare’s words and the individual characters in the play. I also think it allows us to remember that during the medieval period, and even in Shakespeare’s day, attitudes to war were very different to today, and war would have been seen as much more of a fact of life.
Alex Hassell, returning to play the role he first encountered as “Prince Hal” in Henry IV, is superb as King Henry, determined to prove himself on the battlefield and cement his position as king. He is supported by a highly able RSC cast, who deliver the strong performances I’ve come to expect. In particular, Jennifer Kirby as Henry’s French bride Katherine and Sean Chapman as Exeter stand out, with comedic moments provided by Antony Byrne as Pistol and Joshua Richards as Fluellen.
This is a wonderful production, which allows the power of Shakespeare’s language to shine through, and is unmissable if you’ve already seen the earlier history plays.