Henry V, The Globe, 22 June 2012
Musicians played soothing tunes before the start of the Globe’s midnight matinee performance of Henry V. But these docile players were soon replaced by drummers thumping out martial music as the Chorus (Brid Brennan) appeared. They circled round her, the energy of their drumming charging her up before she launched into her prologue.
Canterbury (Paul Rider) and Ely (Brendan O’Hea) took turns on a commode while discussing the bill they wanted stopped (1.1). The Chorus sat stage left and held out a bowl for them to wash their hands in afterwards. This was a clever if distracting way of making entertainment out of tedious politics.
The King (Jamie Parker) swept into view and his court sat in an arc of chairs with Henry at the stage right end (1.2). Canterbury was effusive and obsequious outlining the justification of Henry’s claim to the French throne. After this slightly cut but still rambling speech, he evoked laughter when he said that the ramifications were “as clear as is the summer’s sun”.
All the while Henry sat in his chair and rubbed the fingers of his hand together, the outward expression of his inward trouble. When he asked if he was justified in making the claim everyone enthusiastically cajoled him into making war. Canterbury held centre stage with his rhetoric about bees.
Henry stood up and, as if from nowhere, summoned from within the resolve to bend France to his awe or break it all to pieces.
The French ambassador was summoned and Montjoy (Giles Cooper) duly appeared in his French blue tunic with gold fleur-de-lys. He paused when saying “the dukedoms that you… claim…” sarcastically casting aspersions on Henry’s demand.
The consignment of tennis balls was merely examined by Exeter (Nigel Cooke) and not bounced all over the stage. Only one white ball was removed, which Henry bounced and caught in his hand as if batting it away. His repeated word “mock” was emphasised each time with a bounce of the ball.
The Chorus set the scene for Southampton before going to sit stage right. The elderly Nym (David Hargreaves) looked forlorn as the sound of sexual congress came from the tiring house (2.1). Mistress Quickly (Lisa Stevenson), in the company of Pistol (Sam Cox), was shouting an historically accurate and therefore comical “Yea! Yea! Yea! Yea!” from offstage.
Nym wandered for a moment before frustratedly drawing his dagger on the Chorus who defended herself with her own dagger. Outward aggression turned inward as Nym drew his finger across his throat, saying “Knives may cut”, implying the possibility of suicide.
Bardolph, played by Paul Rider, who had just changed from portraying Canterbury, tried to console him. With his Compo hat, Nym looked like a character from Last of the Summer Wine.
Nym referred to holding out his iron, but the usual reference to a dagger or sword was instead given a bawdy twist as Nym seemed to be alluding to his penis. This made his subsequent remarks “it is a simple one… it will toast cheese” very funny.
The entry of Mistress Quickly prompted Nym’s “and there’s an end”, as he expressed his sorrow at losing her and having to hear Pistol enjoying her.
Pistol swaggered wonderfully, telling the musicians to stop playing before he continued. At frequent intervals he would make a pistol gesture with his fingers, which became his trademark.
Pistol argued with Nym, showing his backside to him when referring to Nym’s “nasty mouth”. He responded to Nym’s challenge with his pistol gesture, saying that the “cock is up, and flashing fire will follow”. Once they had drawn daggers, Bardolph separated them.
The Boy (Olivia Ross) spoke of Falstaff’s grave illness: at this point the absence of Roger Allam’s character was keenly felt.
The traitors sat on chairs while Exeter and Westmoreland (James Lailey) talked about them (2.2).
Henry strode through the centre opening, with their commissions tucked into his belt. There was a hint of premeditation in Henry’s order to Exeter to free a prisoner that made it look like the start of a ploy.
He called the traitors forward onto the promontory and handed them their commissions. Once they had read them, they immediately tried to escape but were wrestled to the ground and dragged back screaming. After their arrest, Grey (Giles Cooper again) snivelled pitifully on the ground.
Having dealt with them, Henry told his lords to set sail for France. As he said this, the body of the dead Falstaff was being lowered down from the balcony to the ground and carried away. Henry lingered alone and looked at the audience with a troubled expression as his one-time companion made his final exit.
Henry’s forlorn look seemed to suggest both that he had not yet freed himself from his riotous past, and also that he felt doubtful about the future. This self-doubt was also registered later in the performance when Bardolph was executed, and in response to the long list of French dead after Agincourt.
The Eastcheap crew reminisced about the dead Falstaff (2.3). Pistol gave a long hugging kiss to Quickly and then invited others to do the same. They formed an orderly queue. Bardolph puckered up and closed in; the Boy gave her a peck and walked away looking deliciously sheepish. But when Nym moved in, Pistol drew his sword and warned him off.
Pistol delayed moving his trunk out of the way as the French throne was brought onstage for the next scene, to give David Hargreaves time to change into the French King.
The French King had the same lost look as Nym, almost like a man in the early stage of dementia (2.4). His eyes were wide and staring, and was obviously relying on his son the Dauphin (Kurt Egyiawan) to run the shop. His phrase “black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales” sounded like a repetitive stumbling over words. His poor health hinted that the French were going to lose.
The messenger entered but was held back so that the King could continue his speech. This implied that the frail monarch was being humoured in his dotage.
Exeter entered and unfurled the long pedigree at the King’s feet. In face of this evidence, the King merely gazed with a feeble expression.
The Chorus set the scene for Harfleur and right on cue explosions shook the stage, chambers swung down from the heavens to fly back and forth emitting smoke, as Henry and his men charged bloodied from the tiring house (3.1).
Henry knelt on the promontory for his “Once more…” speech, amid a really convincing evocation of mid-battle excitement. He descended the steps into the yard to point at a groundling he identified as a “good yeoman”. The Globe space lent itself perfectly to this kind of connection between actors and audience.
For some reason he said “The game is afoot” with no elision.
In a glorious piece of audience participation, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George” was broken into three and each bit was repeated by soldiers down in the yard after Henry’s initial cry, encouraging us to join in. We became in effect the English army at Harfleur. This succeeded up to a point, but was most effective when observed from the galleries rather than as a participant.
The heroism of this moment was immediately undercut by Bardolph’s parody. He came up the steps from the yard exhorting us, amongst other things, to “stretch out your greyhounds” (3.2). Demonstrating the success of the English charge, Pistol stood with his foot on an escaping wounded man.
These soldiers were urged onwards by an excellent moustachioed Fluellen played by a half-Welsh actor (Brendan O’Hea again) who was able to supply an authentic accent.
Gower (Matthew Flynn) and Fluellen discussed the mines as the dirt-mired miners came out the trap door. Macmorris (James Lailey again) had an Irish accent but the Scottish Jamy (Chris Starkie) was deliberately incomprehensible, a joke that produced murmurings of discontent from some of the Scots in the audience.
Fluellen inched his way towards Macmorris, requesting a discussion about the Roman wars. The Welshman relished the poetry of his utterances in stark contrast to the indistinct blather coming from Jamy.
Now set before the walls of Harfleur, Henry reminded the Governor (Roger Watkins) up on the Globe balcony of the dire consequences of resistance (3.3). As the town gates were opened, Hal paused and stared at his gloves, a man evidently troubled by the gory threats he had just made.
In the English lesson, Katharine (Olivia Ross again) copied the exaggerated gestures deployed by Alice (Lisa Stevenson again) when translating words for parts of the body (3.4). Sound and gesture were learnt by Katharine as a package.
When Katharine remarked that “foutre” and “con” were not words to be said before the “seigneurs de France”, she bowed before some imaginary French lords. The lesson was interrupted by the sound of drums and trumpets offstage heralding impending conflict, after which came the interval.
At the start of the second half, the French were surprised at the fervour of the English: “Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull” (3.5). Given the soggy weather so far that summer, the answer was absolutely yes. The French King spoke his long list of French nobles from the promontory to give it extra emphasis.
Gower and Fluellen’s conversed about the bridge (3.6), and Fluellen’s thoughts on the vagaries of Fortune had a fitting poetry.
Fluellen and Pistol argued about Bardolph, resulting in Pistol giving him the fig gesture.
When the two Welshmen met, Fluellen was keen to impress his compatriot King Henry. He sang out “The Duke of Exeter is master of the pridge” in great excitement, but no one was particularly moved by his enthusiasm.
Henry broached the subject of the battle dead. Fluellen said there were none apart from Bardolph who was due to be executed. Henry looked troubled and he stuttered out his “We would have all such offenders so cut off”, obviously upset about the impending death of his former drinking companion.
This showed that he had not fully cast off all his old friends. His initial project, to seem more worthy having comprehensively rejected them, was faltering. Henry’s next words giving “express charge” against looting and bad behaviour were angry, but this was because of losing Bardolph and not displeasure about the offence.
Henry continued to be bitter with the French messenger Montjoy. He joked about three Frenchmen equalling one Englishman. He was sarcastic about his new taste for bragging being caused by the French air. Nevertheless, there was a persistent tinge of sadness in his demeanour. He looked down at the ground as if not entirely convinced by his own bravado.
The night time scene with the French preparing for battle was given extra realism because of the late hour (3.7).
The Chorus introduced the corresponding night scene with Harry talking with his troops (4.1). Henry borrowed a cloak from Erpingham (David Hargreaves again) and used it to disguise the coat of arms on his jacket. Identifying himself as Harry le Roy, Henry was assumed by Pistol to be Cornish, but swiftly adopted a Welsh accent.
We had seen throughout the performance how Henry had been troubled by his position and harboured grave misgivings about his actions. His long exposition about sleep and ceremony here, seemed to summarise and give complete expression to his disquiet.
He knelt and prayed to his sword for success in battle and agonised over this father’s usurpation of Richard. There was real desperation in his voice when he said that everything he did was “nothing worth”. This was another indication of the pressure on him and not a comment on his father’s fault.
After a brief scene showing the French readying themselves for battle (4.2), Henry rallied his downhearted troops (4.3). His claim to be the most offending soul alive with coveting honour seemed slightly insincere. In the light of his previous misgivings there were grounds not to trust his sudden enthusiasm.
Henry went onto the promontory for his Crispin’s day speech. There was something quiet about his manner, which was not hectoring but came instead from somewhere calm within him.
Montjoy appeared again with an offer of ransom, which was rejected. Henry was surprised at York’s request to lead the vanguard.
The battle got underway with longbowmen firing volleys of arrows, which were gradually aimed lower as the enemy approached (4.4).
A French soldier (Giles Cooper again) in armour hobbled across the stage pursued by Pistol who demanded a ransom. When told via the Boy interpreter that the captive was willing to pay, Pistol comically announced “my fury shall abate”.
The always ominous remark about the luggage “there is none to guard it but boys” was followed by a sequence in which Henry and a formation of his men wielded halberds in a series of stylised movements representing the continuation of the battle.
A short scene showed the French bloody with defeat (4.5). All was “perdu”.
News came of the battle dead, as well as a puzzling order from Henry to kill the prisoners (4.6). Pistol was visibly annoyed at having to kill Le Fer instead of ransoming him.
The killing of the Boy took place onstage, his neck cut with a knife by the French (4.7) before being carried off. His body, with blood visible on his neck, was then brought back by the English.
The horror of this sequence was directly followed by the comedy of Fluellen’s comparison of Macedon and Monmouth in praise of Henry.
Henry was spitting angry at the slaughter of the boys. He looked up at the Globe galleries to see the “horsemen on yon hill” and shouted “bid them come down…” But this proved unnecessary as Montjoy gave him the day.
Henry broke down and cried at this news. Fluellen cajoled him with his anecdote about Edward the Black Prince and leeks, to which Henry responded by bowing his head as if overcome with speechless passion.
The Welsh contingent in the audience cheered at the mention of Henry’s indelible Welsh blood.
Everything that Fluellen did was informed by an enthusiastic joy, which formed a stark contrast with Henry’s ponderous mood. It seemed inevitable that when these two were brought together that the height of Fluellen’s rhapsody should accompany the depths of Henry’s despair. There was also the possibility that the life-affirming jollity of his compatriot was the trigger that released the King’s pent-up emotion.
After Henry’s reunion with Williams (Chris Starkie again) and the soldier’s abject apology for challenging his king, Henry had serious matters at hand (4.8).
On reading the list of the dead he had requested, Henry was severely affected by the disparity between the numbers of English and French who had died.
He stuttered out the news that ten thousand French had been killed. His order not to boast of the death toll looked like contrition for having caused such slaughter.
His final words in the scene “Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men” looked like an insincere misstatement of his mood. The literal jollity of his words was undercut by his subsequent blank stare at the audience as the Chorus entered for act five.
The Chorus took us to England and back to France again.
Sparks began to fly when Fluellen, wearing a leek in his helmet (5.1), met Pistol who imitated his Welsh accent when talking of “Cadwallader and all his goats”. Not taking this insult lightly, Fluellen headbutted him to the ground and struck him to make him eat the leek.
Pistol tried to spit it out, but Fluellen made him swallow it. But he did in fact keep most of the leek in his mouth, as we saw when he spat it into Gower’s tankard at the end of the sequence.
For the final scene, Henry wore a coat of French blue (5.2). The two parties lined up either side of the stage as Burgundy (Paul Rider again) made an incredibly eloquent speech about the peace accord.
The doubling of Canterbury and Burgundy was significant. Whereas the play had begun with a speech by the archbishop fomenting the war, this speech by the Frenchman formed a counterpart extolling the virtues of peace.
These two speeches by the same actor bookended the production.
After slyly arranging to be alone with the object of his affections “Yet leave our cousin Katharine…”, Henry tried to move close to her. But her chaperone Alice stood between them, her face like thunder, insisting “non!” Alice was indignant in her explanations of the princess’s words.
Katharine was not at all enthusiastic. Henry tried to kiss her lips, but she protested. Alice says said that she did not know how to translate “baiser” into English. For some inexplicable reason, at this point she became surprisingly keen on Henry and allowed him to pursue Katharine unhindered.
He eventually embraced and kissed Katharine. Only one person in the audience made a catcall but everyone else watched in respectful silence. This was an odd reaction quite unlike the cheers that often accompany such moments in the theatre.
But everyone laughed at Henry’s hasty retreat at “Here comes your father”. In his hurry, Henry put his cloak on inside out so that the lining was on the outside, which he swiftly corrected.
Burgundy was knowingly sarcastic when asking Henry about teaching English to the princess. The King of France consented to the marriage and all ended well.
Brid Brennan’s Queen Isabel took off her hat to revert instantly to portraying the Chorus, making Queen Isabel’s last speech calling for God’s blessing on the match the conclusion of the play, not the usual epilogue about Henry VI.
As with all Globe productions, this one ended with a hearty jig with Henry and Katharine stamping at each other’s feet.
This production emphasised the uneasiness with which Henry wore the crown and his horror and self-doubt at his own actions.
His trauma at Bardolph’s death showed that his plan to use and abandon his Eastcheap companions came at the cost of caring about those people.
But the depth of Henry’s character built up during the war scenes suddenly disappeared under the weight of the concluding love story.