I am delighted that videos of performances at the Globe Theater reconstruction in London are becoming available again, this time on the Kultur label. The first of the current releases is a 2012 “Henry V” with Jamie Parker in the title role. The text is fairly complete and the show runs close to three hours. And while there are no subtitles, the cast speaks clearly enough, and at a rapid pace. Dominic Dromgoole directs.
After seeing too many modern dress productions of the history plays, it is a pleasure to see the proper period costumes here. I recall how unfunny the comic characters are in some recent productions. At the Globe, Sam Cox makes a fine Pistol, along with a really carbuncled Paul Rider as Bardolph. It is interesting that Chorus is played by a woman, Brid Brenna, but she does not get to speak the closing bid for applause.
Fluellen is your comic stage Welshman, with his obsession for the Roman way to conduct a war and his references to Alexander the Pig. The joke here is that he is favorably comparing his beloved King Henry to a pig, which brings me to the main point.
Shakespeare was able to see quite through the facades that history puts around its heroes. He knew that Henry V was considered a great English hero and he couldn’t safely deny it in a play. So he lets the Chorus praise the king to the skies, while the play itself shows him to be as scheming as certain recent politicians in whipping up a war to consolidate his power on grounds so shaky that audiences still laugh at them.
Where King Henry IV is shown taking an active part in the battle in “Henry IV, Part I,” Henry V is not seen in action at all at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s script. In fact, the only confrontation Shakespeare gives is Pistol capturing a terrified French knight. It seems that Henry is good at getting his men into a war and shouting rousing speeches to keep them going, but that is all.
(The film versions (Olivier in 1945 and Branagh in 1989) are careful to show Henry as a warrior king. Olivier, of course, was making propaganda during wartime. Branagh’s Henry’s big moment was carrying a dead body across the battlefield. Many stage productions follow as this tradition. Shakespeare, however, knew what he was doing.)
Parker’s Henry gives no indication of the disparity between the usual positive view of him and Shakespeare’s view of things. I would like to hear from some local English teachers and theatre groups about their view of this play.
Alas, following the current trend, all the heightened language inherent in the lines are flattened by a refusal to bring dramatic utterances to any dramatic climax (as Henry’s off-hand “God for Harry, England, and St. George”). It is like playing Chopin with no regard to note values or dynamics. Why bother?