Henry V, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford, 11 November 2011
After wowing audiences with their Richard III and Comedy of Errors earlier in the year, expectations were high for Propeller’s next productions. For keen admirers of the company’s work, a trip to Guildford to see one of the first performances of this Henry V was an opportunity not to be passed up.
The set consisted of a large cube scaffold frame within which stood a mobile gantry with steps at the back. A metal flag post, also a feature of last year’s productions, was situated right of centre stage flying a St George’s flag. Some wooden boxes were located centre stage for the start of the performance.
With the house lights still up, soldiers in camouflage uniform and boots stomped down the two aisles and through the audience, singing For a Pair of Brown Eyes before assembling on stage. This rumbustious opening took the audience by surprise and set the tone for the whole production, which was characterised by a boisterous energy.
The soldiers sat and began to rummage in the boxes. One of them removed a golden crown from a box and paused to look at it, as if taken slightly by surprise. He then launched into “O for a muse of fire…” as the troops became a collective Chorus, sharing the lines of the prologue between them.
The reference to the “scaffold” seemed appropriate given the set’s metal framework. The phrase “wooden O” was kept.
This staging of the prologue made it look as if a troop of soldiers had discovered some props and was performing Henry V as a play within a play.
Two of the soldiers took clerical robes from the boxes and put them directly over their uniforms in preparation for 1.1. Their still visible camouflage, boots and dirty faces continued the conceit of a play within a play.
The squaddie Ely and Canterbury discussed Henry’s claim. A crucifix on one of the boxes indicated the clerical setting.
When they mentioned the French Ambassador, he appeared behind them perched on one of the boxes. He had a supercilious air as he sat and filed his nails, presenting a stereotypical view of French aloofness.
As the scene changed to 1.2, troops entered and marched on the spot as the gantry was rearranged to face diagonally towards downstage right. The soldiers gathered and stood around Henry who sat stiffly on a throne.
Exeter (Chris Myles) had a baton under his arm and was officiously protective of his sovereign. His subsequent doubling with Katherine’s servant Alice saw him in a similar role.
Henry (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) spoke in a voice that was clipped, very officer class, and characterised by a brusque, efficient coldness. This was not a happy Harry, but someone driven, controlling and a very long way from the youthful libertine of the Henry IV plays.
The long speech about the Salic law was slightly cut, which meant that Henry’s impatience with proceedings had no comic payload. This fitted with the general humourlessness of his character. But the audience did laugh when Henry stood and commented on how any war in France would expose England to attack from the “giddy” Scots.
The French Ambassador, who we had seen earlier, was brought in. Henry sat to listen as the Frenchman sneeringly rebuked the English for considering their invasion of France as no more than a “galliard”.
The Ambassador brandished a small wooden box containing a gift from the Dauphin. Exeter approached to inspect it, and the Ambassador, seeing that Exeter was short, lowered the box slightly as if making it easier to reach. Exeter took the box and moved centre stage, peeked inside and said “tennis balls” at which point two dustbins full of tennis balls were emptied from the top of the gantry and bounced around the stage.
Henry was very angry, but his general froideur meant that, to begin with at least, he simmered with suppressed rage. However, the true feelings behind his politic demeanour and language were betrayed by a simple gesture: he grasped a tennis ball and pinched it with the tips of his fingers.
Eventually he exploded at the Ambassador and threw the tennis ball back at him, grabbing him by collar. Once this explosion had subsided, he displayed a slight flicker of regret at his outburst as he adjusted his clothes and proceeded to other matters.
The balls were swept away by the Chorus. They outlined England’s war preparations as they worked. The officers leading the plot against Henry changed into their army, air force and navy uniforms on stage as they were named by the Chorus. An eyedropper full of poison was emptied into a hip flask to be carried by one of them. After the Chorus the play continued with scene 2.2 so that we could see the fate of the plot.
The conspirators pored over maps placed on the boxes stage right. Two lords stood on the gantry and commented on the traitors. One of them passed the hip flask to Henry offering him a drink. But the ever-vigilant and protective Exeter, sensing danger, gestured to Henry not to drink from the flask. The King simply stood and gazed down at the flask, realising it was poisoned.
With the reality of the plot against him apparent, Henry’s next move, the decision to show clemency to a prisoner, was shrewdly calculated to provoke demands for retribution against the captive from the conspirators, effectively laying a trap for them.
Taking their demands for rigorous punishment as the measure to be meted out to them, the King sprung that trap. The plotters blenched when they read the papers Henry had given them, not their commissions for the war, but warrants for their execution. The King’s annoyance and sense of betrayal with his close associate Scroop saw Henry wrestle him to the ground and spit angry words in his face.
Exeter lined up the conspirators and as he formally arrested each one, he tore off their epaulettes and threw them contemptuously to the ground. They stood upstage as the executioner brought in his axe and block. The axe was struck onto the block at which instant all the plotters fell to the ground dead. This was the first instance of a staging device used throughout the production in which violence done to an object represented violence against a person.
Henry picked up the axe that had just destroyed his enemies and held it as he vowed immediate action against France. There was something about the sight of him wielding an axe that was more direct and brutal than the more familiar stage convention of holding a sword.
The performance continued with scene 2.1. Soldiers entered singing London Calling, a song whose references to the capital and war being declared, fitted perfectly with the pre-war mood of the Eastcheap tavern. This song segued into a violent football chant. Cans of Carling were sprayed around, one spinning on the ground propelled by the pressurised lager inside. The soldiers wore football and rugby shirts. This seemed to be a comment on the connection between war and Brits-on-the-piss xenophobia.
Gary Shelford’s Bardolph was a jolly fat man who had the task of trying to assuage Nym who had lost the hand of Mistress Quickly to Pistol.
Quickly and Pistol entered fresh from their wedding through an archway of daggers. Quickly was played by Tony Bell in a white wedding dress and his hearty laughter at proceedings was in itself funny. His/her cleavage was packed with tennis balls among other things. Bardolph tried to keep Pistol and Nym apart, an endeavour which eventually obliged him to hold one of them on the ground.
The Boy’s reference to Falstaff was cut, as were all other references to that character, so that Quickly did not leave the stage to visit him and was present throughout.
The second time that Bardolph drew on the warring Pistol and Nym, he stood between them, held his large bat aloft, and jabbed it from side to side felling both combatants at a distance.
Pistol decided to be a “sutler” to the camp, a trade which he immediately embarked upon by throwing boxes of cigarettes out to the troops.
Quickly’s re-entry and comment on the death of Falstaff were cut, so the action continued with the end of 2.3. Quickly sobbed tears because Pistol was departing for the wars, so to cheer her up Pistol gave her a plastic heart novelty with a flashing light inside. He kissed her (Vince Leigh made sure he had his hand over Tony Bell’s mouth effectively separating their mouths). The others filed past Quickly as they exited and declined to kiss her, exemplified by Nym who said “I cannot kiss”.
The French lords entered for 2.4 as an accordionist played Manhattan Transfer’s Chansons d’Amour and then a bit of the ‘Allo ‘Allo theme, which raised a chuckle from the audience.
The French prepared their defences, but were interrupted by Exeter who brought Henry’s claim to the French throne. The pedigree used to justify his claim was presented on a scroll unrolled from the stage left scaffold. When confronting Henry’s messenger, the Dauphin pulled himself up to his full height in another visual joke about Exeter’s stature. Exeter gave as good as he got and mispronounced the name “Dauphin”.
The English soldiers donned battle gear and formed into a narrow forward-facing column. They spoke the Chorus to act three, with its description of the army crossing the Channel. The lead men held ammunition box covers in front of them to suggest the doors of a landing craft. The doors dropped down and the sound of gunfire resounded as the Chorus reached its dramatic climax. The soldiers rushed forward into battle at Harfleur to the sound of ricocheting bullets.
Henry stood in front of the gantry still holding his axe (3.1). He and the other soldiers were out of breath, suggesting the exhaustion from which the “Once more” speech was supposed to rally them. At its conclusion Henry led the charge with his axe.
Fluellen had a Welsh flag projecting from his backpack and the sound of All Through the Night played to denote him as Welsh. After his admonishment of the three slacking soldiers (3.2), we heard the Boy’s comical putdown of the same men. This made for a pleasant interlude and counterpoint to the fighting.
The sequence with Captains Gower, MacMorris and Jamy was cut, so that the performance continued with scene 3.3 and the besieged town sounding a parlay. The King stood on the gantry while the Governor spoke to him through a pretend megaphone from the front of the circle.
After the French had urged an attack on the sickly English (3.5), Fluellen knelt on top of the gantry with a field telephone reporting to the King, not Gower, about the services done on the bridge (3.6). This involved some rearrangement so that the King was not introduced part way into the scene. The King had now swapped his axe for a sword which he held using a chainmail glove.
The condemned Bardolph had his neck broken on top of the gantry and he hung there lifelessly as the King said he “would have all such offenders so cut off”.
After Mountjoy’s message and Henry’s defiant reply, the King stood and looked at the executed Bardolph. This seemed to indicate a moment of thoughtfulness, which took us into the interval.
During this time the Propeller cast sang in the theatre bar to raise money for charity. Given what they could have done during the interval, this was a great testament to their dedication and generosity.
The levity of mood created by the interval singing was continued in the first scene of the second half. This was the delayed 3.4 in which Katherine received a comic English lesson.
Katherine initially sat at a dressing table stage right. A bath rested on a plinth centre stage and a gown was positioned stage left on a stand. The English army sat round and watched as Alice tested the bath water with her elbow and Katherine got in. Once in the bath Katherine drew a loofah up from somewhere to great audience amusement.
She and Alice continued their conversation in French with Alice teaching her the English words for parts of the body. Katherine looked at the relevant parts of her own body and adopted a distinctive gesture when saying each word.
Her pronunciation of ‘neck’ as ‘nick’ coincided with Alice nicking Katherine’s leg as she shaved it. Chris Myles’ Alice had previously tested the razor on his own beard.
The English troops sat around the edge of the stage butted in and corrected Katherine when she mispronounced “chin” as “sin”. But Alice flattered Katherine saying that her pronunciation was excellent even though it was not, contradicting the English corrections. Katherine’s flushed embarrassment at saying “foutre” and “coun” for “foot” and “gown” was very funny.
Katherine eventually got dressed in her gown and she and Alice exited through ranks of watching English, glancing at the soldiers in puzzlement. The presence of the English seemed to indicate the menace of war intruding into this most private of domestic settings.
The performance then moved forward to scene 3.7. The French stood on the stage gantry to give us a cut version of their impatient comments that omitted their discussion of horses.
This was interspersed with some dialogue borrowed from elsewhere in the text in which the English made their preparations on the stage below them. The scene led into the Chorus to act four and then the King’s meeting with Pistol.
Henry wore Erpingham’s cloak, whose folds he partly hid under, and he also disguised himself with a beanie. When asked his name, he hesitated for a while and stuttered out “Harry.. Le.. Roy” as if finding his way to the name by accident. The King spoke the missing Gower’s lines to Fluellen.
The King discussed the impending battle with the three English soldiers. Some of their responses and chiding seemed to affect him as he felt the need to hide behind his disguise.
After exchanging gloves with Williams, setting up the reveal in act five, the King made his complaint about the soldiers’ attitudes to us. He stressed the word “ceremony” by splitting it into its syllables.
Erpingham called on the King to depart, but Henry remained and knelt beseeching God, itemising the good deeds he had done to atone for his father’s deposition of Richard II.
The French entered and put on CRS uniforms complete with fleur-de-lys riot shields, helmets with visors and batons (4.2), making a very modern reference to street warfare.
This scene was interspersed with lines borrowed from 4.3 showing the English making their preparations on the gantry. In that respect the staging and rearrangement of the text here mirrored that of 3.7.
The King entered at stage level to deliver his Crispin Day speech. Given the splenetic and unheroic characterisation of Henry in this production, this keynote speech did not feel rousingly jubilant, but more like the words of someone organising a gang fight.
Mountjoy was sent back again having failed to get Henry to agree his own ransom, and thereby concede his impending defeat. The English defiantly armed for battle with batons and clubs.
Punch bags were brought down from the side of the stage for the start of 4.4. As the battle of Agincourt got underway, the fighting was represented by men with clubs beating the punch bags as enemy soldiers approached. When a bag was struck a soldier fell dead.
This was another instance of the remotely inflicted violence that characterised the production. It was very effective here, because the great force of the blows against the punch bags invited the audience to consider what would have happened had a real person found themselves on the receiving end.
Pistol captured a prisoner and the Boy translated between them, speaking in broken French. There was a note of humour in the Boy’s sarcastic remark that Pistol was a gentleman only in the French prisoner’s estimation. Pistol hit the punch bag with a club to strike blows on his prisoner. Finally, the Boy addressed the audience to explain that he had to stay and guard the luggage.
At the end of a brief scene showing the French rout (4.5), one of them struck a punch bag killing the Boy who then had blood sprayed onto him by operatives with spray bottles.
Henry was also covered in blood spray (4.6) and ordered the English to kill their prisoners. This meant that Pistol had to kill his prisoner, which was staged by someone ritualistically slitting open a bag of blood, which was then drained into a bucket.
This bloody spectacle was followed by Fluellen carrying in the body of the dead Boy. He wailed about the infamous French action. He had his conversation about Alexander the Pig with someone other than Gower and the reference to Falstaff was cut.
Henry’s anger at the death of the Boy rebounded on Mountjoy, who on his return was held at sword point by entire English party including the King. The French messenger conceded under duress that the English had won the day.
The King hugged Fluellen in response to his speech about the services performed by the Welsh and the King’s pride in his Welsh origins. The King’s conversation with Williams in 4.7 was continued into his confrontation with him in 4.8, thereby cutting the dispatch of Fluellen to trick Williams. The King’s direct challenge to Williams, instead of sending Fluellen with the glove in his cap, was more in keeping with this Henry’s more upfront approach.
Fluellen stood in the background fuming at Williams. This was the apparent reason for his mocking offer of a shilling, which in the original text is caused by the argument over the glove, a sequence cut in this production.
Mountjoy returned with a list of the French dead, which Henry read out loud from the paper to the sound of a piper playing The Last Post.
The long Chorus to act five was spoken as the stage was cleared for 5.1. The absence of Gower meant that Fluellen got straight down to beating Pistol and forcing him to eat the leek. Another variation on the production’s remote violence was used here. Fluellen punched sparring pads held by another man, at which point Pistol collapsed. Pistol threw bits of leek after Fluellen when he exited. In a more sombre mood, Pistol took out heart he had given to Quickly and lamented her death.
The French and English met for the final scene (5.2). Katherine had her lips made up bright red and faux-pursed against a pale white face. Henry sat on a throne stage left. The weary, defeated King of France wore a Petain style uniform and sat in a similar chair stage right.
The role of the Queen of France was cut so that most of the organisation and officiating was performed by Burgundy who stood centre stage between the two monarchs.
After Henry had sent the others away for further talks, he took off his crown and began his earnest wooing of Kate. Alice stood in attendance on her charge. Alice and Kate looked look askance at each other when Henry said he might “leap into a wife”, a reaction which served to underline the bawdy connotations of the phrase.
The fact that Kate was being played by a man made that character’s coy deflection of Henry’s advances all the more humorous.
The audience laughed at Henry when he said that he was not France’s enemy because he would not part with a village of it. Henry’s French was broken, causing Kate and Alice to laugh at it, as Henry himself remarked.
His speech describing her as “divin déese” was part written in the palm of his hand. Another comic note was struck when he glanced down at his palm to read from it.
When Henry tried to kiss Kate and was rebuffed, some in the audience got the joke centred on the double meaning of the French word ‘baiser’. It was heartening to think that a 400-year-old joke in French was still being appreciated.
Kate sat on the upstage table, swiftly accompanied by Henry who also perched on the table at a respectful distance. He then shuffled towards her, and tried to steal a kiss with a reminder that “nice customs curtsy to great kings”. She eventually relented and they shared a moment of chaste intimacy as each kissed their own hand and then pressed that hand to the other’s lips.
They stood and Henry tried to move in for a proper kiss, but was interrupted by return of Kate’s father. Henry’s hasty “Here comes your father” provided a humorous end to the sequence.
It did not take a genius to work out what the pair had been up to. Burgundy asked Henry if he had been teaching the Princess English in a manner that was knowingly sarcastic.
Instead of Queen’s blessing, the actual marriage was staged in a theatrical telescoping of time that served to indicate that the performance was nearing its end.
After the marriage Henry handed his crown back as if concluding the performance within the performance that had begun with him finding it in a box. This blended into the epilogue, in which the birth of Henry Sixth was staged. The bloody toils that followed were symbolised by a bucket of guts born by masked figure, which tipped a wink to Propeller’s recent Richard III.
Propeller’s all-male cast found in this play a perfect outlet for their particular brand of boisterous energy. No wonder that this was the first play they performed when the company was founded.
The production offered us a troubled vision of Henry. He was largely unlikeable, but at the same time the only character exercising the virtues of thoughtfulness and reflection. This Henry seemed to be unconsciously driven, yet painfully aware of the consequences of his actions.
Propeller were in their element. This company are masters at combining a rigorous approach to the text with sheer fun. The production will be playing at other venues in London and the South East in 2012 and I will sure to catch it at least one more time.