Friday I went to the midnight performance of Henry V, at the Globe theatre. Along the South Bank at 11pm people (young people) were out on the benches, sharing beers and talking, a few half-dancing to the distant songs played from the one late night bar on the waterfront. The play began at five to midnight: I was up high, close to the side of the stage, looking down.
I was struck again how fascinating and complex Henry V is as a play, but I wasn’t stunned by the production. To many English people, the play is Shakespeare’s most jingoistic and patriotic, adapted into film in wartime to encourage us to go on fighting Hitler. Yet there is much going on under the surface, particularly when one remembers the history plays that precede it, and how the characters from Henry IV and even Richard II return in this play to complicate our admiration for hero-king Henry.
We see a man forced into a warrior’s pose, pushed into it until, at the end of the play, he describes himself (to the French princess he is wooing) as a soldier (not a lover), taking refuge in the part events have required of him. Yet we remember him as a young man, pre-king, enjoying drunken revels with Falstaff, and we see the cost of his transformation, see his heart being chipped away as he is required, by his own military code, to execute a man he was once drinking friends with, forced to execute old school friends for treason.
The play is also ingenious in its class sympathies: in Henry, we see a monarch who attempts to break down class divisions, whose speeches are to the common soldier; in the French, we see a decadent aristocracy in love with its own pride. The French make speeches to themselves.
Whether Henry succeeds or not, whether we go away convinced of his capacity to transcend his own power and command–Shakespeare leaves this up to the audience, and to the individual director and actors.
This particular production of the play was wonderfully scrupulous and faithful. It was exactly how I imagined a version of the play would look on stage, and as a result was not especially interesting. Given the gulf between Shakespeare’s language and our own, it is genuinely difficult to follow some of the early speeches (the play has a startling amount of forgetable exposition, and gains pace slowly) simply by listening carefully. One senses intellectually what is going on, but one strains to feel it, to know whether an individual character is saying something good or wicked, intelligent or dense.
A director’s vision can firstly emphasise one or other reading of the play, and try to communicate that reading to the audience, and secondly can create a visual unity that aids the audience’s imagination, along with its ears.
For instance: if the clerics who encourage Henry to war are meant to be corrupt and venal, then no harm is done by having them ham it up a little, by acting out the long speeches they have to perform, by engaging the audience directly. The Globe is particularly suited for such interaction. It is not good enough for skilled actors to simply say those lines. This performance of Henry V did not quite seem to know itself.
I left the Globe at 3 A.M., and walked back along the South Bank to Waterloo bridge, then up to Leceister Square to catch the bus. The waterfront was deserted, the bars and shops all closed. The Thames flowed dark and glittering, a great quick wildness flowing beside the ordered, organised grandeur. The palaces, the office blocks, the peculiar skyscrapers, the tree-thick Embankment park–even, farther off, Big Ben, bright as I crossed the bridge, glowing like a cliche. London was cool on that pale summer night, huge and marvellous.