Sunday, September 13, 2015

Henry V

Shakespeare like Pinot Noir, opera, and asparagus is on that list of things I don't really get. I understand they're good, I can understand why they're good, but more often then not I fail to find any deep enthusiasm for them. With Shakespeare and Pinot Noir I keep trying.

Last night we went to see Henry V at the RSC, it was opening night which always has an extra buzz of excitement around it (closing night for Volpone at The Swan which I would like to have seen, and have a passing regret that I didn't). One of us is an English teacher and Shakespeare fan, she had also seen the live streamed performances of Henry IV parts one and two both of which she spoke highly of. I've seen the BBC adaptations from The Hollow Crown series but a while ago so my memory of it was somewhat hazy.

What I do remember from filmed versions of Henry V is that it was all very heroic with the famous 'Once more into the breach' speech as well as the St Crispin's day bit being particularly rousing. What I don't remember is so much of it being played for laughs.

If I were more energetic about it I'd read all three plays now, or if I had more spare cash I'd maybe think about trying to catch the whole cycle at the Barbican this winter - neither are on the cards, and this is one of the issues I have with watching Shakespeare plays; should it really demand so much work from me? I'm prepared to put in the effort in the theatre, I'll read the programme, and if it's new to me read up a bit about it before, but the language can be so dense that it's easy to miss the finer points and nobody likes feeling as if they're missing out.

As it is I enjoyed this performance (despite being hazy about some bits) almost as much as I was surprised by it. In the programme James Sharpo argues that it's a going to war play rather than a pro or anti war play, and Alex Hassell's Henry still has traces of the immature boy about him. The reasons for going to war with France are part dynastic ambition, part response to an insult - neither are necessarily the thought out actions of a mature king. This Henry is growing into his role, distancing himself from the excesses of his youth, but is still recognisably that same prince Hal who did not behave like a king in waiting at all.

His 'once more into the breach' moment is the speech of a leader who's playing with the lives of his men, secure in his kingship he doesn't consider what he's asking. It makes the scene where he wanders amongst the men on the eve of Agincourt so much more powerful - here's when the penny drops and he finally grows up - or perhaps is finally forced to accept some responsibility for his actions. Elsewhere he's been particularly skilled at avoiding that responsibility. Either way, the St Crispin's speech was a proper goosebump moment, and the final scenes with Kate both funny and convincing.

Part of the joy of live theatre, especially when a play is reasonably familiar (to at least one of us) is the discussion on the way home. The whys and the did it works are every bit as absorbing as the performance. The more I think about this production the more I find in it.


  1. I have always had a problem with Shakespeare and Pinot Grigio, not Noir. The language has always been the barrier for me, though I did learn the 'once more into the breach' speech at Grammar school for some reason and it remains lodged in my memory even now.

  2. My problem with pinot grigio is entirely different to pinot noir, and mostly based on snobbery. One thing that's surprised me about seeing more plays by Shakespeare's contemporarys is how much more accessible some of them feel. Its all very well enjoying the details in Shakespeare whilst reading him with the help of some excellent notes and a room full of other eager students but I left school a long time ago and I'd like to be able to enjoy him on the stage without major preparation first. But those are just grumbles, it was an excellent night out and I do love seeing things at the rsc.