Monday, 13 January 2014

Cry God for Harry, but mostly for great theatre

This might be the time to suggest we borrow from the Bard and ‘cry God for Harry, England and the Michael Grandage Company!’

It’s a long time since I’ve been to the theatre to see a Shakespeare play that I don’t know. In the case of Henry V, I haven’t even seen the Olivier or Branagh film versions all the way through.

In such a circumstance, you have to be on your toes as a member of the audience.

This version of the play has been edited to keep it to just three hours (plus interval), but it doesn’t suffer as a result.

I’m not going to detail the plot – suffice it to say that the action takes place before, during and after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) in the Hundred Years’ War as Hal, now king, invades and defeats France and gains the hand of the French king’s daughter, Katherine.

It has been interpreted in various ways – both as a jingoistic celebration of military might, but the antithesis of that too.

That, in itself, is one of the strengths of Shakespeare’s writing – that it is not an obviously black and white affair.

But it’s equally worth remembering, of the history plays alone, that writers still had to be careful what they had their characters say.

To give you an idea, in 1605, George Chapman, Ben Johnson and John Marston penned the satire Eastwood Hoe, which so offended James I with its anti-Scottish content (they took the piss out of his accent), that Johnson and Chapman were jailed for a time, although Marston escaped arrest.

In this production, we begin with the Chorus appearing to address the audience, dressed in jeans and a designer t-shirt with the Union flag on it. The Chorus too concludes the entire piece and we seem to be being reminded of present wars.

The intended message is not laid in stone, but it is a subtle way of connecting past and present, and of making the audience aware that the consequences of wars past were just the same as of wars present.

Henry himself ranges from being principled to being brutal: he is neither simplistically 'civilised' nor 'uncivilised', but both, depending on circumstance.

The scene where he woos Katherine is very funny, as we see him fumble for words and a gentleness that is appropriate to the situation.

As so often in Shakespeare, there is a scene where we see some of the ordinary soldiers. In this case, when Henry disguises himself to wander around the camp on the eve of battle.

It’s been noted in more than a few analyses that such characters, though mostly unnamed, are often drawn in remarkable detail and with great sympathy – suggesting that the Bard himself knew such serving men in his own time as a soldier.

Here, the scene accentuates Henry’s own loneliness and isolation – or perhaps more widely, the loneliness and isolation of leadership.

It’s also a play that is pretty much a roll call of famous phrases – “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” might trigger reminders the title of a drama set in WWII, and that's just one.

If the “cry God for Harry” speech feels slightly rushed upon us because of the editing, then the St Crispin’s speech is spine-tingling goosebumpy – and that’s precisely what you go to the theatre for.

Christopher Oram’s set is simple – and totally true to the Chrosus’s opening speech of the play, when it talks of “within this wooden O”.

The performances are universally fine, but particular mentions go to Ashley Zhangzha as Chorus, James Laurenson as Exeter, Ron Cook as Pistol, Noma Dumezweni as both Mistress Quickley and Alice, and Jessie Buckley as Katherine.

Jude Law as the eponymous king – the big draw, of course – really is excellent.

He ranges from courtly gesture to embarrassed wooing to looking quite at home with a bloody big sword – and all with apparent ease.

There’s not much time left to see this, but if you can – go.

And at the end of a 12-month period in which we just happen to have, with no planning, seen the entire first Grandage season, I deeply hope that there will be more.

And for the record:

Privates on Parade ***
Peter and Alice *****
The Cripple of Inishmaan ****
A Midsummer Night’s Dream ***
Henry V *****

This is the mainstream – and we want more please, Mr Grandage!

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