My mental image of Henry V, assembled more from references elsewhere than from actually seeing it, was of a stirring tale of English valour against the odds – a very patriotic, even nationalist play and certainly a very serious one. ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech are so much a part of our culture that they define the play if you’re not familiar with it.
So it was bit of a shock to discover that the play itself, at least in this production, is almost more a knockabout comedy than a tale of heroism, or a reflection on the nature of war. Getting the balance right between the two seemed difficult to me, and I wasn’t sure that the RSC quite managed it. If Bardolph, Nym and Pistol, brought over from Henry IV, were the only comic characters it would be fine, but we have another comedy set up with a Scotsman, Welshman and Irishman, a comic scene in the French court where the Princess is trying to learn English, another with one of the King’s soldiers (Williams) who ends up striking him, and even in the more serious scenes, the French Dauphin seems to be treated largely as a comic character.
With all that going on, the transition from comedy to stirring speeches, or to the King’s introspection, seems crucial. How do you deal with a comedy Scotsman, followed by an order from the King to kill the French prisoners? Some of the comedy was brilliantly done – assuming it’s still OK in the 21st century to mock the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish and the French through stereotypes, in a manner that certainly wouldn’t be OK for some other nationalities. Some of the serious stuff was brilliantly done too, and Alex Hassall carried off the title role well – entirely convincing in the transition from Prince Hal in Henry IV to the warrior king here. He delivered the stirring speeches well, looked the part of a heroic leader, but still convinced in the more introspective speeches and in his bumbling courtship of the French princess.
I also enjoyed the staging, which made good use of the thrust stage, but seemed much simpler in terms of scenery or props than most RSC productions. That made sense of Oliver Ford Davies’ role as the Chorus, powerfully urging us to use our imaginations. Sometimes there are so many visual flourishes at the RSC that imagination is hardly required.
But I wasn’t entirely sure that the transition from comedy to seriousness worked so well. The English (or British?) army was presented as such a ragbag bunch of misfits that its conversion to a supreme fighting force capable of defeating an army several times its size, seemed little short of a miracle. If it was King Henry’s oratory that did the trick, it wasn’t obvious here. His passionately delivered ‘What’s he that wishes so?’ speech, seemed to be met with a sullen silence. If Chris Robshaw’s inspirational words to his team were met with that kind of reaction, then it’s no wonder that England are out of the Rugby World Cup.
Perhaps an unusual play to take over the main stage in Stratford, normally devoted to the works of Shakespeare at this time of year, but ‘Death of a salesman’ comes with a huge reputation as one of the best and most significant plays of the 20th century. If it’s a gamble by the RSCs Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, to put on a non-Shakespeare production, then being able to call on Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter to star in it, must reduce the risk a lot, and he has ended up with a wonderful success to justify his decision.
Anthony Sher gives a great performance as washed up salesman Willy Loman, entirely convincing as his mood swings between buoyant optimism and suicidal depression. I’ve never seen the play before so I can’t compare him against other actors, and it’s clearly a great part to get your teeth into, but I thought it was a stunning performance. Harriet Walter has a less meaty part as his wife, but was the perfect foil, having to deal with his constantly changing moods, but always supportive, understanding his character better then he does himself and entreating their sons to make allowances for him.
As always the RSC produced a great ensemble performance, making dynamic use of the thrust stage, and the swings in time and setting as well as mood were well handled. I particularly liked the transformation from a domestic scene to an outdoor one as actors rose standing still from below and then suddenly switched into action to create the criss-crossing bustle of the city streets.
Alex Hassell, having played Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff earlier in the year in Henry IV, produces another good performance as Biff. He seems to be the RSC’s rising star, slated to play Henry V as well in the autumn, and as with Henry, here he has to play both the older Biff and his younger self, which doesn’t look easy to carry off. There’s not the same growth and maturing that there is with Prince Hal, as Biff seems to be stuck in a pattern of petty theft. But he too achieves some kind of maturity with his realisation that he may be better off working outside, even if it means giving up on the American dream that his father and his brother Happy (well played by Sam Marks) still seem enthralled by.