Review: Henry V at Stratford

“…a powerful play full of brio and sentiment…”  writes Richard Lutz

Alex Hassell (centre) as Henry V

Alex Hassell (centre) as Henry V

And just when you thought it was safe to escape the tub-thumbing chauvinism of this green and pleasant land, what with Nigel Farage, the Fortress Britain of strict immigration codes and, of course, the Rugby World Cup, up pops this history play that gets the heart thumping.

Henry V stars Alex Hassell – exuberant and headstrong as the young King Hal – ready to do battle as he heads once more into the breach to save England and carve a royal career for himself. It’s a play written to strike direct into the heart of the English soul. And it does, too.

Here, there is no internecine rebellion, no country riven by factions, no War of the Roses, no domestic treachery. It’s a simple play about Britain beating the bejesus out the French because, well, because Henry V wanted bits of their country, really. Nevertheless it is rousing stuff, whatever your modern take on politics.

PIctures by Keith Pattison

Pictures by Keith Pattison

Correctly set on a sparse stage and frugally lit, the effect is to emphasis the cutting and driving power of the words, which are sometimes rhetorical, sometimes savage, sometimes poetic, always listenable. After all, when everything else is stripped back, all you have are words.

It is a powerful play full of brio and sentiment, helped by Martin Slavin’s soundscape which adds so much even down to the constant drizzle of the rain on the plains of northern France and the sodden troops readying themselves for Agincourt.

Hassell’s king starts as a callow unconfident monarch. He grows into his royal role, hardening his soft childlike side, warning Hornfleur, under siege, that he will roast babies on a spit if the defenders don’t surrender. And his battlefield heart toughens even more when he orders the vengeful slaughter of docile prisoners. This is a prince turning to the violence of medieval kingship. Growing up, in essence, in 1415.

Hassell is good at ringing in these changes, especially when Hal softens towards his own cantankerous troops or when he is faced with the beauty of the young French princess Katherine, played playfully by Jennifer Kirby.
There is ample support from Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel and a quirky take on the chorus by Oliver Ford Davies, donned in donnish clothes – all jumbley cardigan and wooly scarf – as he lightly moves the action on: now Southampton, now Calais, now Agincourt and now back to London. It’s a cute turn on what can be a deathly and tedious role. This solid and majestic production, by the way, is the last of a two year cycle by the RSC of the English history plays. And was it a coincidence that it comes to an end this October, the 600th anniversary of Agincourt?

Until  October 25th Tickets: 0844 1110

One thought on “Review: Henry V at Stratford

  1. These wars of conquest seem strange to us now when we are in an age of “liberal interventionism” ie we only fight wars abroad to stop human rights abuses. I must say in passing that I don’t think Shakespeare was at his best in the speech “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers……..” that in fact is the only good line !

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