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Henry V as Shakespeare Intended
on 12 August 2013
About half way through Henry V Corporal Bardolph gets himself executed for stealing from a church and the news is reported, triumphantly to Henry as the only English casualty of a recent skirmish. But the king knows Bardolph from his days hanging out with old Jack Falstaff back in Henry IV part 1, hears the name and his face freezes and he chokes his first attempt to respond - and at that moment, in that brief sob, you see a man who has no choice but to allow an old friend to die and, if you're watching this as part three of the trilogy, maybe remembers a line in that now apparently distant play where he warned Bardolph that if he doesn't stop stealing, one day he'll end up hanged. Then, having dispatched his old comrade, there's real passionate anger in Henry's assertion that he'd ordered everyone not to rob the French (which is historically untrue, but not the point) - Shakespeare's line is not "oh, God, stupid, stupid b*****d, I bloody told him" but it might as well be.
It's moments like that raise Dominic Dromgoole and Jamie Parker's take on Henry V above any other I've encountered. This scene is often underplayed and just used to show how far the king has come from Prince Hal, here it's a pivotal moment, a betrayal - justified but a betrayal nonetheless - that suggests that "how far" perhaps equals "too far" and that this Henry has become the same detached, self-serving noble politician as the ones who dulled and spoiled his father's reign.
Productions of Henry V tend to follow either Olivier's cardboard patriotic hero or Branagh's cynical glory hunter, Dromgoole, however, never loses sight of the fact that this is not a pro-War or anti-War play; it's a play about how war makes people behave and how they react to imminent death, glory or both. So, Shakespeare's portraits are allowed to speak for themselves - from the vain, over-confident French boasting of glories not yet achieved, through the comic yet wiser Captains Gower, Jamy and Llewellen (the latter performed with glorious bravura by the criminally under-rated Brendan O'Hea), the swaggering but cowardly Ancient Pistol (who between his portrayal by Sam Crane in Henry IV and by Sam Cox here appears to have aged about 20 years, but is still the same character) and the tragic figure of the Boy - Falstaff's old page (who hasn't aged 20 years) - whose experience of the campaign teaches him to abandon roguery for loyalty and honour only to find them in his death at Agincourt guarding the baggage train.
And, disguised among those ordinary soldiers, on the eve of battle, sharing their hopes and disputes, their jokes and their fears, Parker's Henry completes the Education of a King that is Shakespeare's big theme through all three plays and learns the answer to the question that's been probing away through all of them, "Who speaks for England?". Not the sycophantic, politicking nobles, not the self-serving legalists of the church and not the drunks and rogues of the taverns, but these hard grafting, straight talking professionals who give their lives for it. The strength of this production is seen most clearly in the huge contrast that it creates between, at Harfleur the bombastic, glory seeker crying "God for Harry, England and St George" and, at Agincourt, the reflective team captain, understatedly celebrating the "Happy Few", the "Band of Brothers" fighting together for a cause.
It's no surprise then, when as the battle passes and Henry woos Katherine of France - a brilliantly played comedy, featuring an almost dementedly protective Nurse Alice - he asks if she can accept marriage not to a King but to a Soldier. He's found himself and he's found England and, ok, he's found it in exactly the place you might expect Shakespeare, a child of that same rising professional class, to locate it, but that's why it works so well. This isn't "Henry V for Victory" or "Henry V Against the War", this is Henry V by William Shakespeare and neither Dominic Dromgoole nor Jamie Parker nor anyone else in this, by turns, hilarious, moving and ultimately triumphant production ever forgets.