The Wooden Novell-O

Henry V, Novello Theatre, 6 December 2013

The curved, mud splattered palisade that formed the back of the Henry V set was strikingly similar to the structure used by the recent Globe production of Macbeth.

So when the Chorus (Ashley Zhangazha) emerged and spoke of “this wooden O”, the Novello resounded with a clear echo of Bankside.

Establishing such a connection inside a proscenium arch space was incredibly clever, and typical of other thoughtful touches in the staging.

The Chorus was dressed in jeans and union jack t-shirt. His request that we should use our imaginations and his apology for the “unworthy scaffold” made him seem part of the crew rather than a character within the production. The sound of neighing encouraged us to visualise horses.

He was a modern figure talking to us as our immediate contemporary, which rendered the ensuing action effectively a play within that play.

The Chorus stood aside and watched the opening scene and later played other characters, most notably the Boy.

The palisade centre doors pulled back to reveal King Henry (Jude Law) sitting on a throne reading messages and issuing orders.

The audience had after all paid to see Jude Law and so the production gave them an early glimpse of him, which provided something for people to look at while Ely (Richard Clifford) and Canterbury (Michael Hadley) discussed the Salic Law and Henry’s claim to France (1.1).

The clerics remained onstage as Henry rose from the throne and came forward to speak with them, effectively merging the first two scenes into one sequence (1.2).

Jude Law was very convincing as a king, adopting a powerful wide-legged posture, his hands cutting through the air with strong emphatic gestures.

If the British royal family count as mega-celebrities, then conversely mega-celebrities can been seen as royalty: consequently a celebrity of Jude Law’s standing and acting talent becomes a natural choice to play a stage king, because his own aura of fame elides with that of Henry’s kingship.

The production was built around the star turn and this reflected the way in which the play revolves around its central character. The king’s reign was not an ensemble production and neither was this.

Canterbury’s long genealogy with its semi-comic pay-off “So that, as clear as if the summer’s sun” was cut removing a moment of potential comedy from the start.

But the reference to the “weasel scot” got a laugh when Henry’s nobles were persuading him of the need to lay claim to France and make war preparations including defending against opportunistic Scottish incursion.

Canterbury’s long concluding speech was shortened of its ruminations on social hierarchy so that he merely advocated dividing England into four.

The Ambassador from France (Prasanna Puwanarajah) entered while an attendant carried in a chest. Exeter (James Laurenson) looked inside and saw that the Dauphin had presented a gift of tennis balls.

King Henry’s responded to this slight with measured anger, tipping his crown askew in self-mockery when referring to his previous “barbarous licence”. But he extended his “rightful hand” threateningly towards the Ambassador to make plain his warlike intent.

At once energetic and animated, Henry ordered preparations for the now inevitable war.

Having observed events from upstage, the Chorus came forward and introduced us to the three traitors who skulked at the side, before setting the scene at Southampton (2.0)

The action continued with 2.2, linking the traitors’ first mention with the scene in which their treachery is uncovered.

The plotters stood in a loose group stage right and Henry joined them, ensuring that they overheard his leniency to a drunk who had insulted him.

They were given their arrest warrants instead of their orders, upon which Cambridge (Ian Drysdale) pleaded briefly for mercy and all kneeled hoping for clemency. Henry rebuked them, raising each in turn from their kneeling position to berate them individually.

Exeter arrested them, prompting extended pleading from all three. Henry had gone to stand at far stage left avoiding their sight. But he could still hear their pleas, and his bowed head indicated the pain of his dilemma.

But his resolute response was not long coming. He turned and shouted “God quit you in his mercy!” firmly denying them any hope of mercy.

The guards who had kept their hands poised on their sword hilts now drew their blades to escort the three to execution.

Once the main event had passed there was a feeling that we were passing on to the comedy filler of the lower class soldiers: Nym (Norman Bowman), Bardolph (Jason Baughan) and Pistol (Ron Cook) (2.1). The comic rivalry over the Hostess (Noma Dumezweni) between Nym and Pistol with his rakish hat and swishing sword of “flashing fire”, was very entertaining.

The Chorus took the role of the Boy, still in his jeans and t-shirt and with a modern rucksack and metal water container. His presence in an actual role within the production as opposed to his choric function became intriguing and pleasantly disconcerting. Our contemporary commentator had become part of the story he was telling.

The presence of fleurs-de-lys and French blue indicated the shift of the action to France (2.4). Exeter presented Henry’s “pedigree” in a bound volume. He spoke very quickly all the time, possibly to help shorten the run time.

The French were not jokey caricatures, but the Dauphin (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) was portrayed as the weaker of the group so that Exeter’s slight mispronunciation of the Dauphin’s name provoked the slight heir to respond.

The soldiers said their farewells before leaving for France, whilst also taking time to bid goodbye to the recently deceased Falstaff (2.3). Quickly’s adieu to the men led directly into the Chorus taking us forward on our imaginary journey and back to France.

The Chorus weaved a verbal image of the war preparations (3.0). The mention of the “nimble gunner” touching the “devilish cannon” did not trigger massive explosions but merely a rumble of noise.

The alarum at the start of 3.1 saw the English army forced back from behind the central opening in the palisade stage left amid a cloud of smoke and noise of artillery. The English rallied and made another assault but were similarly repulsed.

These failed attempts were the background to King Henry’s exhortation to them to go “once more unto the breach”.

His general address to them turned into a practical pep talk. He breathed in demonstrating how to “stretch the nostril wide” and the soldiers imitated him. He addressed a “good yeoman” and spoke to rally the spirits of one of the soldiers crouched on the ground.

The army became vocally responsive to his encouragement and grew visibly more confident so that when he described them as “greyhounds in the slips” this was an accurate image of their renewed fighting spirit.

He drew another soldier’s sword and handed it to him and then led a massive charge with the army following him to storm through the breach.

Oratory

Bardolph, Nym and Pistol accompanied by the Boy were left behind to undercut the brave sentiments of Henry’s rousing oratory (3.2). Fluellen drove them onward leaving the Boy/Chorus to describe their villainy and cowardice.

The character of Jamy was cut leaving Fluellen (Matt Ryan) attempting to discuss the war with Macmorris (Christopher Heyward) until the besieged town of Harfleur sounded a parlay.

The Harfleur governor (Rhys Meredith) was brought in and fell to the ground surrounded by Henry and his eager, angry and newly invigorated army.

As his threats of retribution against the townsfolk if they did not surrender grew more insistent, the army growled their support and edged forward so that the prone figure of the governor was overwhelmed by them.

The Governor rose to report that the Dauphin could not assist them and then invited the English to enter the town. He knelt on the ground for mercy, but Henry, embarrassed at this grovelling, pulled him to his feet, restoring the man’s dignity and going someway to making up for the gory threats he had made against Harfleur’s populace.

Kate’s (Jessie Buckley) French lesson was not played excessively for comedy and she was rather restrained when repeating the English version of the list of body parts (3.4). The mispronunciations of foot and gown produced the strongest swearwords: the French “foutre” and the English “countt”. Rather than letting “coun” sound like the French “con” a t was added to the end to make it sound like an English swear word, which obviously would not have been offensive to the French.

This was possibly designed to make plainer the offensive nature of at least one of her pronunciation errors.

In a very interesting move, these French-speaking French were then met and greeted by the king (Richard Clifford again), who embraced his daughter, and his nobles, who proceeded in their subsequent scene to speak in English. Having these two mutually exclusive worlds impossibly on stage at the same time strongly underscored the language switch, which can otherwise pass unnoticed.

The French were worried by the English advance but nevertheless Montjoy was sent to demand Henry’s ransom (3.5).

We returned to the battlefield and the rumble of war with Gower, Fluellen and Pistol (3.6). We learnt from Pistol that Bardolph was to be hanged for theft. Fluellen supported this punishment which prompted the comedy of Pistol giving him the fig and storming off.

Henry asked Fluellen about their losses and also heard about Bardolph. He knelt downstage with his face uplit. He paused and wished “all such offenders so cut off” with no flicker of remorse. Anyone unfamiliar with the backstory from Henry IV 1&2 might not have remarked on this being personally painful for him.

Montjoy demanded that Henry ransom himself. The king bravely rebuked him, but stood alone at the end facing the audience to give them a long meaningful look before the lights went up for the interval.

The Chorus came onstage before the start of the second half and lay on his back reading an edition of Henry V, then stood to tell us about the preparations at Agincourt (4.0).

Night-time at the English camp saw the rear of the set become a starry background, and fires appeared from under several small traps around which troops huddled (4.1).

Henry spoke with Erpingham framed by the starry background. He stared at the soldiers further downstage and seemed inspired by this sight to visit them. He first met the drunk Pistol and had to pass himself off as Welshman Harry le Roy.

Over on stage right, the comedy continued as Gower (Harry Atwell) introduced himself too loudly and Fluellen had to quieten him.

Henry coarsened his accent slightly when he spoke to Williams (Norman Bowman again) and his comrades. He looked troubled by Williams’ description of the mutilated bodies of the war dead and how they would one day rise to accuse their king, so that when he seized on the minor point in Williams’ proposition about his liability for the soldiers’ souls and countered it, this seemed a device to avoid the major point Williams had made, enabling Henry to avoid contemplating the horrors of war and simultaneously position himself as victim.

After taking Williams’ gage, Henry launched into his soliloquy about the injustice of heaping all responsibility onto the monarch’s shoulders, which in the context of the above came across as an avoidance strategy.

After Erpingham’s brief interruption, Henry faced forward to call on the “God of battles” to bolster his troops. He fell to his knees pleading with God not to think on his father’s fault and listed the good works he had done. This could be seen as a crisis in part provoked by Williams and postponed by the king’s prevarication.

The French battle preparations saw them staring out at the audience, indicating their fascination with the distant enemy and suggesting their nervousness (3.7). Their banter about horses became enthused with a similar trepidation. The scene merged into 4.2 in which a messenger informed them the battle was about to commence.

The despondent English advanced in formation through the centre doors and faced the audience (4.3). Westmoreland (Edward Harrison) stated grimly that the French had 60,000 men, which Exeter calculated to be a 5-1 advantage.

They wished each other luck, but Westmoreland hoped to be joined by a fraction of those not working that day in England. Henry appeared behind them and contradicted Westmoreland’s desire for reinforcements.

Henry worked his rhetorical magic once more on the dispirited English, saying that their situation offered either a small loss of life or a great share of honour. As he described the aftermath of victory and the fame of the lauded combatants, the soldiers were again roused by the prospect of success.

Amid murmurs of encouragement, Henry named them in turn prompting yet more enthusiastic responses. And once again he modified his accent to imitate one of his common soldiers bragging “These wounds I had…”

The army was highly energised and ready to go, which made their response to Montjoy’s renewed demand for Henry’s ransom very predictable.

With each staccato phrase of Henry’s severe rebuke, the soldiers chanted and advanced with a stomping gait on the terrified Montjoy.

The feverish enthusiasm of the army was shared by York who, typifying the refreshed vigour of the English, brightly requested “the leading of the vaward”. The mood had now been completely transformed from the despondency of the start of the scene, and the contrast was clearly brought out.

At some point a soldier spat at the mention of ransom, possibly when Henry said he feared Montjoy would return again to ask for it.

The battle began with alarums and excursions as soldiers rushed across the stage (4.4). The comedy of Pistol’s capture of “Signieur Dew” (Jason Baughan again) was given a tricksy edge by the presence of the Boy, still in jeans and rucksack, acting as interpreter. On being offered a ransom of two hundred crowns, Pistol sheathed his sword saying “my fury shall abate”.

The Boy/Chorus then hinted heavily at how lightly the luggage was guarded.

Two brief scenes showed the French rallying after a setback (4.5) and the English during a brief respite in the battle (4.6). With the French challenging them again, Henry ordered the prisoners to be killed.

Poys

The Boy was carried away by a French soldier and killed offstage (4.7). This prompted Fluellen’s great line “Kill the poys and the luggage!” The sourness of the incident was then immediately undercut by the comedy routine sparked off by Fluellen referring to Alexander the Pig. This proved to be the laugh out loud moment in the performance.

Henry said that he was angry at the killing of the boys, but if so he was keeping it mostly suppressed. The French messenger Montjoy knelt and offered his sword as a gesture of surrender. Giving thanks for the victory, King Henry knelt as did Fluellen who, full of feeling for his compatriot, reminded Henry of his Welshness. His remark about the water of the Wye not being able to wash the king’s Welsh blood from him was yet more comic undercutting of an otherwise serious moment.

Henry spotted Williams and tricked Fluellen into wearing his glove. He sent Williams away to fetch Gower, but did not send Fluellen after him. Williams simply returned and found Fluellen with the king’s glove stuffed ridiculously under his hat.

After a brief altercation, Henry came forward and revealed to Williams that it was he whom he had struck (5.8). Williams’ contrition earned him a glove full of gold crowns. Fluellen comically followed after him to offer him a shilling to mend his shoes.

After all this laughter the note with the number of dead was delivered. There was a huge discrepancy between number of English and French dead. Henry seemed moved, but his character was too full of confidence and had been too gung-ho in his warlike posturing ever to be upset at enemy deaths.

The Chorus at the start of act five was cut, so we went straight into 5.1 without the long meandering journey via Blackheath.

Fluellen caught up with Pistol and beat him until he ate a leek (5.1). Pistol peeled off some outer layers of the vegetable and threw them away before forced to chow down. But our sympathies returned to Pistol when he told us that Quickly had died.

The English party with Henry at the fore appeared from stage right to meet the French entering the other side. The French were led by their king holding his daughter’s hand as if escorting her to the altar in marriage and thereby offering her as part of the peace treaty (5.2).

Henry’s early mention of her in his opening words underscored how important she was to the settlement.

The role of Queen Isabel was cut, making Katherine the only woman of rank in the encounter. There was no Duke of Burgundy and his part was trimmed and given to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Further discussion about the treaty was needed, so Exeter was sent to negotiate with the King of France. Henry made sure that Katherine, “our capital demand”, was left with him.

Katherine, who appeared to have been treated as a gift in the diplomatic horse trading, unsurprisingly looked cold and nervous as Henry began his overtures to her. She could not or would not understand his entreaties and this produced the comedy of Alice’s (Noma Dumezweni again) consecutive interpretation.

Henry put his crown aside and placed great emphasis on his declaration “I love you”.

The scene then became utterly charming as Henry’s gauche wooing slowly thawed her icy defences, particularly when he tried to speak in broken French, so that eventually one of her broken English put downs was said smilingly as if happy with his attentions.

Henry put his crown back on to emphasise that in taking him, she would “take a king”. The audience laughed at his joke about not being the enemy of France because he loved it so much that he would not part with a village of it.

The king wanted to seal their betrothal with a kiss and the couple knelt. But she was unwilling and explained in French that kissing before marriage was not the custom in her country. Henry was so keen by this stage, that his excuse that “nice customs curtsy to great kings” was wonderfully witty.

They eventually kissed kneeling on the floor, which made their embarrassment the greater when the others returned, prompting Henry’s farcical “Here comes your father”.

This moment of comedy rounded off what had been a perfectly delightful sequence.

The marriage was agreed and the terms settled, but much of the detail of these arrangements was cut.

Queen Isabel’s lines about combining the couple’s two hearts in one were given to Canterbury and made the accompaniment to a form of wedding ceremony with him joining their hands as they looked out at the audience. The ceremonial aspect was enhanced by his phrase “God speak this Amen!” with everyone responding “Amen!”

At this point, the action froze and the Chorus came forward to end the story, still in his jeans and t-shirt, speaking the epilogue on behalf of the author. He pointed out on a depressive note that their son Henry VI’s reign would result in the loss of France and strife in England.

The charm of the wooing sequence and the strong emphasis on marriage at end made the final scene into a powerful, positive statement about love, to the extent that the whole war could be seen as merely the prologue to it.

Conclusions

A celebrity Shakespeare production like this has to prove that its central attraction merits attention. And this was done. The only weak point to the production was that in its attempt to provide a suitable vehicle for Jude Law, the Eastcheap characters were neglected and their world made to feel less important than that of the king.

The best versions of Henry V feel like an ensemble in which Pistol, Bardolph and Nym are as well-detailed, and their fates as significant, as those of their alleged betters.

There was much to praise in the detailing of the king’s royal progress, and in particular the meshing of the Chorus into the story, but the rest felt neglected and this was to the detriment of the whole.

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