Innovative Staging for Heroic Yet Humble Henry V Hot
- Henry 5
- by Willliam Shakespeare
- Royal Shakespeare Company
- October 25, 2007 - March 14, 2008
The rough metallic structure of Stratford’s temporary Courtyard Theatre is a hot topic amongst the arriving audience members. As they enter the theatre itself, they find this striking appearance continues onstage, with a large cylindrical rusty column as an imposing central feature. This harsh, desolate setting fits well with the war-like theme of this history play. Whilst the staging appears—at first glance—quite imposing in its unfamiliarity, elements of the Renaissance theatrical space remain, with musicians clearly visible in their gallery in the "Heavens." The Chorus (Forbes Masson) bounds on stage, unassumingly bringing the play to a start, taking the audience by unawares. His performance is immediately engaging, with jokes alluding to the unusual theatrical space, creating ripples of laughter through the audience.
The theme of conflict and desolation is also reflected in the costumes in this production, in all except the frivolous French in monochrome. The earthy colours of the English costume emphasize well the ‘everyday’ man—King Harry’s old friends—fighting side by side with the King, himself. This is particularly important, as it represents Harry’s own feelings—later he describes himself as being ‘no more of any man, save ceremony'. Because of his past, we know this to be truly what Harry believes, and Geoffrey Streatfeild portrays this wonderfully.
Dressing the French King in white, contrasting with King Henry’s black attire, also provokes the audience into contemplation of what this might be saying. Traditional dualisms suggest good/white versus evil/black; perhaps instead, the colour association represents the black English as threat and the white French as innocent and vulnerable. Whatever is implied by this costume assignment is largely unimportant; what matters is that it forces the audience to think about these possible dualisms that can be associated with each side of the battle.
Costume and staging very clearly impose a view of the French as airy and frivolous - dressed in bright and vibrant colours and descending from above, suspended by ropes, they appear almost like canaries on perches—small, unimportant and just a little ridiculous. The French are the physical manifestation of those well-known words from The Merchant of Venice—'all that glisters is not gold'. Although they appear superior in their raised position and grandiloquent appearance, this is unfounded and unsupported. Also, what can only be described as a wonderful piece of staging logistics, the French presence is always accompanied by sedate piano music—the pianist, piano stool and piano suspended in midair alongside the French. Aside from the novelty of such a feat, this offers a comment on the arts, themselves, aligning the airy arrogant nature of the French with the formality of courtly music.
Henry V’s arrival onstage comes with an instant sense of gravitas. Although he portrays well the cold confidence of his kingly role, there is also a perceivable element of Harry’s lack of comfort in this new position—a difficult balance to perform, but masterfully done by Streatfeild. In comparison to the flippant and superficial portrayal of the Dauphin (John Mackay), who is physically elevated above Henry, this emphasises further still the well-grounded (literally!) and sincere English King.
As would be expected in this warring environment, female characters are a scarcity. This means the scenes with Lady Katherine and Alice are decidedly contrasting to the rest of the play in more ways than one. The only French to appear on stage level, where the English have appeared, they offer much humour to break up the serious nature of surrounding scenes. This comedy is readily welcomed by the audience, although it is interesting that the comedy is centred 'round ridicule towards the French in their attempt to grasp the English language. This demonstrates the journey the play takes, from two very separate nations of the French and English, which begin to unite in these scenes with the conflation of language, concluding with their symbolic unity through the marriage of Henry and Katherine.
The battle scene is brilliantly executed, once again making the utmost of the stage space. The English emerge from underneath the stage; ladders come up from below, perhaps to illustrate their ascendance to victory. Offstage musical sounds realistically create the noises of battle, and military rhythms pervade the play, maintaining the feeling of warfare. Another clever staging ploy sees the coffins of the French dragged onstage. Not only does this enforce a solemn atmosphere upon their English victory, it also creates another level of staging, making this the literal foundation upon which the next stage of Henry’s kingship continues (with his wooing of Lady Katherine).
To the production's benefit, Streatfeild offers a much more innocent, naive "wooing" performance than others. We see that, despite his recent grand victory as King of England, Harry is still just a young man who has real feelings of love and, like so many young men, he struggles and stumbles in revealing these in the difficult, yet endearing process of wooing the one he loves. Ingenious staging is the prevailing success in this performance, supported by a wonderful portrayal of Henry V and a strong supporting cast. Henry is simultaneously a powerful kingly figure and an innocent young man. I defy anyone to see this performance and not leave with a burning sense of patriotism in their hearts!
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