Another live broadcast from the RSC, and a wonderful production. My only regret was that this broadcast was so near to the end of the run I couldn’t get down to Stratford to see it in the flesh.
Alex Hassell is going to be a star – maybe a theatre star, maybe on television or film. He played Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 earlier this year (also broadcast, and covered in previous Film Posts but before I was writing this blog), and Biff in Death of a Salesman, and he’s a real presence on stage.
In the pre-show film, Director Gregory Doran talked about how this Henry is growing into the role of the king, and you saw that in Alex Hassell’s performance. At first he’s uncertain as the new king, trying to put on a strong front for his nobles, but he grows into his anger at the gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin, and gradually turns into the confident warrior-king of Harfleur and Agincourt (with very muscular leather armour).
The production wrings plenty of humour from the play too – set aside the reliance on national stereotypes and the interplay between the four captains (Gower, Fluellyn, Macmorris and Jamie) is very funny. The arrogance of the French nobles preparing to ride down the English (“A very little little let us do, and all is done.”) gets as much of a laugh in modern Britain as it probably did in Shakespeare’s time. But the “resoundingly unfunny leek scene” (Kenneth Branagh’s description that I quoted last week) is still resoundingly unfunny, as indeed were most of the scenes with Pistol – I really don’t get the point of the character, unless it’s to point up the baseness of the average English soldier of the time.
Doran stresses that his production isn’t intended to be pro- or anti-war, as many Henry V productions are, but rather about going to war – once war becomes a fact, men have to go to fight. Some are resolute, many are reluctant. One of my favourite scenes in the play – one of my favourite Shakespeare scenes, period – and beautifully done in this production, is Henry’s movement through the camp the night before Agincourt, debating (in disguise) with Michael Williams the merits of the war, the king’s cause, and the soldiers’ duty. It’s a disquietingly thoughtful interlude amongst the preparations for the following day’s battle.
And I have to add a note on RSC stalwart, the ever-wonderful Oliver Ford-Davies as Chorus. He’s been with the RSC for years, and is a reassuring presence in any production – utterly reliable and entertaining (he played a brilliant Polonius opposite Dave Tennant’s Hamlet, a role that could have been written with him in mind).
This production is heading for London (where it will play in the cycle with David Tennant’s Richard II and the Henry IVs), then on to China and the USA.
And Alex Hassell should come back from that an international star.