Henry V, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, 25 October 2007-14 March 2008.

Bill Gelber
Texas Tech University

Bill Gelber. "Review of Henry V, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 22.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-3/revhen5.htm>.

Directed by Michael Boyd, Associate Director Richard Twyman, Set Design by Tom Piper, Costume Designs by Tom Piper and Emma Williams, Lighting by Heather Carson, Music composed by James Jones and John Woolf, Movement by Liz Ranken, Sound by Andrea J. Cox, Fights by Terry King.

With Forbes Masson (Chorus); Geoffrey Streatfeild (King Henry V); Chris McGill (Prince John of Lancaster); Miles Richardson (Duke of Exeter); Rob Carroll (Duke of York, Sir Thomas Grey and Captain MacMorris); Tom Hodgkins (Earl of Westmoreland); Patrice Naiambana (Earl of Warrick); Geoffrey Freshwater (Archbishop of Canterbury and Captain Jamy); Roger Watkins (Bishop of Ely and Grandpré); James Tucker (Lord Scroop and Monsieur Le Fer); Anthony Shuster (Earl of Cambridge and John Bates); Julius D'Silva (Bardolph); Keith Dunphy (Nym); Nicholas Asbury (Pistol); Maureen Beattie (Mistress Quickly and Alice [understudy]); Wela Frasier (Boy); Sandy Neilson (Sir Thomas Erpingham and King Charles VI); Jonathan Slinger (Fluellen); Paul Hamilton (Captain Gower); Lex Shrapnel (Michael Williams); Katy Stephens (Queen Isabel); John Mackay (Dauphin); Antony Bunsee (Constable of France); Kieran Hill (Duke of Orleans); Alexia Healy (Lady Katherine); Hannah Barrie (Alice); Chuk Iwuji (Montjoy); and Matt Costain (Duke of Burgundy).

  1. Near the beginning of Henry V, the director Michael Boyd signals that he is made an unusual choice concerning his treatment of the French. As Montjoy delivers his message from the Dauphin, the "tun of treasure" descends from the heavens. The tennis balls are suspended in a chest above the English court. These adversaries, suggests Boyd, can be seen as near mythological figures, who will easily deal with their earth-bound counterparts. Indeed, when we finally meet them, they are floating above the stage of the Courtyard Theatre, suspended on trapezes that recall Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. When Henry's army finally attacks, in the siege of Harfleur, it is from below. As explosions sound, the English suddenly burst from the floor. This is especially surprising to someone new to the stage which currently does duty for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. (The latter is now completely gutted, in anticipation of its renovation by 2010.) At first sight it seems too small a space to handle the spectacle of the eight history plays being performed there. In fact, the Chorus directly refers to the theatre in his first speech, when he substitutes the words "Rusty shed" for the famous "wooden O." However, the former Other Place turns out to be a great choice, making a virtue of necessity, because its thrust stage allows the actors to confront the audience in a much more intimate environment, as Shakespeare's might have done. And spectacular effects are possible in the designs of Tom Piper, when the use of flying from the overhead grid, and entrances from the traps in the stage are readily used throughout. Though the lights are dimmed for those watching the production, the characters' addresses to the court or to the army are to the audience as well as to the actors onstage. (There are a few rewrites within the production which are less successful, for the purpose of cheap laughs. For example, further in the speech the Chorus admits that the hour glass is actually more than three hour glasses and the clowns add a few contemporary references in order to connect their humor to a modern audience.)

  2. Geoffrey Streatfeild's Henry is clearly uncomfortable wearing the crown taken by his father. In his first scene he purposely avoids wearing it before admitting the messengers from the Dauphin. It is Exeter (the excellent Miles Richardson) who makes the most telling gesture toward war with France, when he slashes the chest of tennis balls, causing them to rain down on Montjoy. In the wooing scene Henry actually hands the crown to Alice so that he can approach Katherine from a more human position. Because we are able to see all four of the plays that deal with the fall of Richard II, we see Henry's tenuous position and his painful awareness of his father's crime. In "Upon the King," Boyd retains the lines concerning Richard's exhumation and the prayers of penitence said over his body. (In fact, at well over three hours, not much of the text is missing.) After the night of waiting, however, Henry finally accepts his crown from Sir Thomas Erpingham when Henry returns the old knight's cloak, and he wears it throughout the battles to identify himself as the king among his followers. (This is in contrast to his father, who, in Henry IV, Part I sends several of the nobility into the Battle of Shrewsbury disguised as himself.) Streatfeild and Boyd make intelligent choices throughout the play, as when Henry is discovered fixing an arrow, which he is then forced to use on one of the traitors in the scene when they attack him at the end of the scene, or when he finds himself face to face with the Boy when he announces that Bardolph will be hanged ("We would have all such offenders cut off", III.vi.107-108).

  3. In keeping with the tradition of recent productions, the English do not anglicize their French words and excellent French is spoken by Alice and Katherine in the lesson scene and by Monsieur Le Fer when he is captured by Pistol. Unlike in Olivier's film of the play, the French are treated respectfully. And unlike that film, this is a Henry who is willing to take the expedient actions which are less than heroic. He allows both Bardolph and Nym to be hanged. (They are discovered hanging inside the inner below at the intermission.) He also gives the order, cut by Olivier, to kill all the prisoners, who are pushed into the traps along with fire to burn them alive.

  4. Though no battles are really shown, there is an excellent tableau when the English stand in the center of the stage, swinging their weapons in slow motion as the French are lowered among them and then exit to fight offstage. White streamers are released rather like the streamers of smoke from modern day weapons. English also continually appear with blood on their faces and costumes after each skirmish. The English are dressed in heavy, padded black chainmail, appearing thug-like and dark when compared to the beautiful French in their flowing blue gowns and bright armor, who act out the riding of their horses from those previously-mentioned trapezes. (By using the sound effects of modern warfare and the costuming of menacing uniforms, is Boyd suggesting that the English can be seen as the occupiers of a country which did not attack them?) Boyd uses a multi-cultural cast, with black actors in such roles as Davey (Wela Frasier) and Montjoy (Chuk Iwuji). Lex Shrapnel, who plays Michael Williams, retains some of his strength in his other role as the angry Hotspur when confronting Harry in the night. Jonathan Slinger does not make Fluellen a figure of fun. In fact, while making Pistol eat the leek, he is not afraid to bloody Pistol's nose at what he sees as the latter's insults. Maureen Beattie's Mistress Quickly has chosen a Scottish accent, which adds somehow to the poignancy of the speech on Falstaff's death. (On the night I saw the show, she also stood in for Alice, and spoke wonderful French as well.)

  5. Overall, I would say that this Henry, joined with the other plays in the cycle, builds upon the traditions established within the last few years by modern productions and adds surprises for an audience that may or may not have seen other versions of Shakespeare's famous history play.


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).