Henry V is an excellent case-study in persuasive language. As a master of words himself, the Bard clearly wants to show the power of language (a British Colonel even read out the ‘Band of Brothers’ speech to his soldiers before going across into Iraq) and this production at the Globe Theatre does not shy away from the task. The whole play is a build-up towards the major speeches, interlaced with some humour.
Jamie Parker has the honour of the title role; however he does not seem to know how he wants to portray this medieval king of England. Henry is meant to be an aloof and fearsome warrior, yet Parker’s conversational tone and over familiarity with his subjects and cast members make him not seem like a man who has a divine mission to slay the French. He performs the above mentioned set piece speeches with all the aplomb, shouting and drama one should expect from a Henry, sword in hand, bloodied from the fantastic special effects, but he shifts too much to be convincing. Perhaps the point is to show Henry’s famous political astuteness, presenting himself as a man for all seasons; however, it’s more likely a case of trying to add more comedy and amusing word play than is required. The astuteness is lost when he pleads with the audience, making a gentle appeal with his ‘ending of the world’ speech, and his transitions between differing states are too sudden and choppy to be effective or realistic.
Henry takes even more of the centre stage than is usual in other productions, and in doing so strips all the other characters complexities aside, as if to say they are all comic relief to Henry, which does not really do proper justice to these characters. However it does work, creating brilliant moments of comedy to the play. The Chorus is a singular actress (Brid Brennan), who speaks like a Hobbit, adding her own slant to the story. She merges in well with cast members going about their business in slow motion.
The rest of the cast are relegated to comedy acts, but these roles are taken with relish. Brendan O’Hea’s brilliant Welsh Fluellen is dry and absurd, understanding the war better. Alongside the incomprehensible Pistol and Socttish Captain Jamy, the leek eating scene stands out as hilarious and absurd. Having Jamy as Scottish is a good casting choice, making this play representative of modern Britain, yet having them fight purely under the English banner, and its overly classic public-school English leader Henry.
Olivia Ross’s Katherine speaks purely in French for most of her scenes, and not many people in the audience understand what is going on. Sadly, her pivotal role in ending the war is given much less credence here than in other productions. Henry’s wooing attempts are funny, yet he acts too different from before, and the drawn out nature of their trying to understand each other takes slightly too long.
Director Dominic Dromgoole uses his London 2012 increased budget with skill. Alongside Designer Jonathon Fensom he creates spectacular staged battles and sieges. Gunpowder, cannonballs and smoke giving just a tiny sense of what it was like to go ‘once more into the breaches’. The unique dynamics of the Globe are used to full effect, as entire platoons--weapons, armour, drummers et al--walk through the audience and shouting at each other. It fosters a sense of semi-ordered chaos one would expect to find in an invasion.
A very martial score by Claire van Kampen adds drama and real fighting spirit. There is no pre-recorded music, with drummers, flutists and trumpeters all performing in the gallery or on stage. The costumes are period in nature, with the famous tunic on display. From this sense the play is very conventional, and I am informed this is a choice by Dromgoole to try and present as real, authentic, and uninterrupted account of the text as possible to the Olympic visitors who have descended on the city in the last weeks.
This production is a classical, period Shakespeare, with some maddening, yet enjoyable simplifications. The sidelining of everyone but Henry means many of the themes go unexplored. Parker does excellently when the he really has to as Henry, yet his choppy and ever-changing portrayal never get you on his side. Young Hal does not grow up properly here.