Henry V * * * * *
at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Review by Terry Grimley
Michael Boyd's complete histories cycle comes to a stunning conclusion with this magnificent production of Shakespeare's most self-consciously English play.
The momentum which has char-acterised this entire cycle on the involving deep thrust stage of the Courtyard reaches such a sense of climax here that you have to remind yourself that, in terms of the historical narrative, this play belongs somewhere around the middle.
It is a play heavily overladen with a sense of English identity - not least through the Olivier film which connected Henry V's "few" directly to Churchill's. Shakespeare's deployment of Welsh, Scottish and Irish characters within Henry's contemptible little army - long before Britain existed as a national entity - seems to anticipate the "shared effort" imagery of British wartime films.
And this sense of a nation united under a just cause also crosses class divides as Harry, in disguise, mixes with his foot soldiers on the eve of Agincourt to debate the responsibility of kings.
As Tom Nairn points out in his programme essay, the true heroes of Agincourt - the English archers - do not appear in the play, but Boyd has managed to slip in a visual reference to them in the streamers which shoot across the stage - and the audience - at the onset of battle.
It's a production which deals with striking visual images. The Dauphin's mocking gift - an box full of tennis balls - is struck by Harry so that the balls bounce all over the stage. In our (and Harry's) first glimpse of the French princess, Katherine, she is lowered on to the stage in a gold picture frame - a stunning image.
The French court, whose over-stated decadence is my only slight reservation about the production, swing from trapezes in their finery.
It seems extraordinary that this seeming celebration of English valour and nationhood should start cynically with the Church plotting to divert Harry's attention from the confiscation of its property. The Archbishop's comically convoluted exposition of the dodgy dossier justifying the invasion of France is better done by Geoffrey Freshwater than I've ever seen it, but that's true of many scenes - for example, Alexia Healy and Hannah Barrie in Kate's sometimes tedious impromptu English lesson.
Geoffrey Streatfeild, who struck me as a rather un-charming prince in Henry IV, measures up much better to Henry V, as plausible in the final scene with Kate as in storming the breech or rallying the band of brothers at Agincourt. There's a lovely moment when Sir Thomas Earpington gives the crown a spit and polish before handing it to him with a familiar pat on the shoulder, and you wonder whether the relationship of a warrior king to his comrades-in-arms might not have been just like that.
All the usual blood and thunder is here, together with good knock-about from the likes of Julius D'Silva as Bardolph and, in particular, Jonathan Slinger as Fluellen.
* Running time: Three hours, 30 minutes. In repertory until March 14.