Henry V. Northern Broadsides, directed by Barrie Rutter. At the West Yorkshire Playhouse and on tour, 26 February - 5 June 2003.
Sheffield Hallam University
Hopkins, Lisa. "Review of Henry V." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): #.1- <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-2/henvrev.html>.
With Barrie Rutter as the Chorus, Andy Hockley as Ely / Fluellen, Roy North as Canterbury / Jamy / Erpingham, Conrad Nelson as Henry V, Roger Burnett as Gloucester, Frank Moorey as Exeter, Richard Standing as Montjoy, John Gully as Nym / Orleans, Andrew Whitehead as Bardolph / Bates / Le Fer, Tim Barker as Pistol, Jacqueline Redgewell as Mistress Quickly, Adam Sunderland as Boy, Dennis Conlon as Cambridge / Macmorris, Andrew Vincent as Scroop / Williams, Paul Barnhill as Grey / Gower, David Bowen as Charles VI, Guy Parry as the Dolphin, Jason Furnival as the Constable, Maeve Larkin as Katherine and Nicola Sanderson as Alice.
It is a time-honoured tradition in British culture for foreign conflicts to inspire productions of Henry V. Britain was emerging from just such a conflict when Northern Broadsides' production of the play began its tour, yet the recent slaughter in Iraq finds no reflection here. This seems all the more striking because Andy Hockley, who doubles as Fluellen and the Bishop of Ely, could readily pass for the long-lost twin brother of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who was one of the most outspoken opponents of the war - but instead of being cast as Canterbury, as he so easily and suggestively could have been, he appears instead as Ely.
If the production has affiliations with anything outside itself, it is perhaps most notably with Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film. Guy Parry's Dolphin looks very like Michael Maloney's, and in this production, as in the film, music is greatly stressed: not only is the "Te Deum" sung in full, but the departing Pistol, Bardolph, Nym and the Boy also break into a little bit of barber-shop quartet as they go. Conrad Nelson, who plays Henry V, also composed the music, and the many talented singers in the cast do full justice to it, though there is a sense that it is there to showcase the cast's talents in this area rather than because it contributes to an interpretation of the play. It is, for instance, odd, that not only the French but the dead boy appear to join in the "Te Deum," clearly breaking the frame in a way that seemed to me distracting rather than productive.
The strengths of this production, though, lie in what it is rather than what it is not. This is a really fine piece of ensemble playing, with a uniformly strong cast producing high-energy performances. The set is of admirable simplicity: a carefully joined wooden O, a foot or so high, sits in the centre of the stage. In the first scene, it has a small box on it which serves as Henry's throne; for the war in France, it is covered by two brown sheets which immediately turn it into an obvious representation of muddy trenches; and for the final scene, its centre is filled with a fleur-de-lys patterned carpet which transports us to the court of France. This uncluttered staging allows for rapid movement and scene-switching, with Barrie Rutter's engaging Chorus habitually entering as the other characters depart, and the night before Agincourt having the English sleeping around the feet of the French before waking up to play their own scenes. The stage is also less crowded than usual, since there are fewer courtiers and nobles on both sides, and this leads to some very inventive staging, with the French King gesturing at parts of the audience when he enumerates his peers. The audience also appear to be the target of Henry's threats before Harfleur; not until the end of the speech does it become apparent that the Governor is actually standing in the auditorium.
- Along with the paciness goes a considerable flair for comic timing, making this probably the funniest production of Henry V I have seen. For once, the Williams / Fluellen scene appears to have weight and point, and so too does the leek-eating scene, which culminates in all the other Englishmen producing truly vast leeks and chasing the hapless Pistol off the stage. The scenes with Maeve Larkin's lively, pretty Katherine are also consistently sparkling. Demurely dressed and with doll-like features, she dissolves into fits of giggles when Alice tells her that the English for "dress" is "cunt," and breaks into streams of voluble, finger-wagging French when Henry proposes kissing her. She is willing enough in the end, however, for this is a Katherine who is pleased to be courted, and in the final moments she and Henry lock eyes and cannot stop smirking at each other. This is thus the final unequivocal triumph for Conrad Nelson's Henry, who starts amiably hoping that the Dolphin will have sent him a serious greeting and seems genuinely undecided about war, but who toughens visibly during the course of the play, though even then he never loses an essential humanity and a desire to unwind among friends, which he is finally able to do as he courts Katherine with Scouse charm and triumphantly hits on the word "Donc" like a conjurer finally getting his rabbit out of the hat. This, in short, is a Henry V told as a story focused on people rather than on times and circumstances, but what it does, it does very well and exceptionally entertainingly.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).