Henry V is a play to define England. I would defy anyone not to feel stirred by Exeter’s heartfelt account of the deaths of Suffolk and York at Agincourt, or by Harry’s St Crispin’s Day speech, or by his stout defiance – his Dunkirk spirit – in the face of the French host. The success of Gregory Doran’s production is that he captures this essence well, yet does not allow it to wash away the play’s other features – its humour, its political intrigue, its tenderness – in wave after wave of faux-patriotism and cheap sentimentality. The audience is instead treated to a powerful three hours that is marred only by a slight lack of imagination.
Alex Hassell is a perfectly capable lead, who captures the complexities of Henry’s character well. His journey from fresh-faced ascendant to fully-fledged battle-hardened King of England is well realised. His voice is perhaps not as stern or as formidable as one might want but what he lacks in vocal authority, he more than makes up for with an endearing earnestness and a strong, almost magnetic, physicality. Crown upon his head, blood upon his brow and sword clenched in his hand, there is not one member of the audience who would not follow him once more into the breach. Elsewhere, Joshua Richards provides plenty of comic relief as Fluellen, whose verbosity is matched only by his leek-wielding Welsh pride, as does Antony Byrne as the portly Pistol.
National identity plays a huge part. Aside from Henry and Fluellen, there is an amusing cameo from Simon Yadoo as an incomprehensible Scot and from Andrew Westfield as argumentative Irishman MacMorris. And, of course, there is the host of preening, arrogant French knights, chief amongst whom is Robert Gilbert’s Dauphin, a lurid, boastful bowl-cut on legs. There is even something quintessentially English about the Chorus’ famously apologetic narration – here delivered by Oliver Ford Davies as a shuffling, cardigan-wearing history teacher.
Although the siege of Harfleur is treated somewhat perfunctorily, Doran’s production does an otherwise fine job of stirring the audience’s bones with gritty, raw battle scenes. Hassell’s St Crispin’s Day speech, delivered – not unlike Olivier’s in the 1944 film version – with restrained vigour from the top of a cart, is particularly arresting.
But although eternally present, this fierce defiance does not dominate the rest of the piece. Political machinations are given convincing significance – England’s king-pins stood impassively around their king like statues – and Henry’s own growth, from untested youth to responsible adult with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, is tangible throughout. And, when victory finally comes England’s way, faithful solemnity gives way to an enjoyable playfulness with the text. Henry’s wooing of Katherine is delightfully flirtatious.
Comprehensive thought it may be thematically though, this is a frustratingly middle-of-the-road production in its aesthetics. All is leather jerkins, woollen sacks, and thick belts – with the foolhardy French in curling slippers and powder-blue ensembles. There is something uncomfortably traditional about it all. “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”, we are told by the Chorus. Were there a little more audacity, a little heavier stylisation in Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design, our imaginations might have a little more to work with.
As it is, this is left a commanding and skilfully directed Henry V, one full of laudable performances and one refreshingly sensitive to the subtleties of the script, but it is not an outstandingly memorable production.