November 1, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Henry V (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
The final hurdle! The RSC Histories project is finally trundling to an end with the opening of Henry V, the eighth and final production in the sequence. It’s hard not to have high expectations. Despite a couple of blips (particularly 1 Henry IV) the project has been a resounding success, the ensemble producing some wonderful moments of theatre.
Word had reached me of this production clocking in at almost four hours long on its opening night, which was somewhat scary. In the event they managed to keep it down to three and a half very packed hours: big fight scenes, a frankly ludicrous amount of ropework and midair scenes, the largest set change of the octology and a cast clearly going for broke. Big in every sense of the word, the production did not disappoint on the epic front.
The visually beautiful scenes in the French camp were performed almost entirely from trapezes, with John Mackay’s Dauphin and Chuk Iwuji’s excellent Montjoy swinging by their legs as Forbes Masson’s Chorus played delicate piano from a suspended baby grand. Henry’s famous “Once more unto the breach” speech was announced with a deafening explosion and the throwing open of all the stage’s metal trapdoors, leaving the audience completely shaken, and the final battle saw an elegant display of ropes and ladders covered in ribbons that were fired across the entire auditorium, covering audience and actors.
Yet the visuals, consistently impressive, occasionally felt token, or at the very least not very well justified. The huge cage used to imprison Falstaff and his cronies at the end of Henry IV Part 2 descended again at the start to trap the Archbishop in a tableaux that saw him separated both from the King and his co-conspirators. Later, and more troublesome, a whole new level of decking was built on top of the coffins of the dead of the war- an interesting idea in that it showed the rest of events happening on the foundation of war, but no use was made of the new staging other than people standing on it, and the scene change to create it was very long and clunky, a real mess.
Staging aside, the performances were largely very good, and it’s rewarding for those of us who have seen the ensemble develop over eight plays to see the actors return in some cases to the roles they played in Henry VI Part I – Burgundy, the Dauphin and Exeter to name some.
Geoffrey Streatfeild was very good as the young king, though never dominating the play. This was not an actor-led production, which worked favourably for Streatfeild, who was at his best when reciting those famous speeches almost as afterthoughts on the battlefield. The St. Crispins day speech began before one had even noticed, and allowed Streatfeild to build momentum, capturing our attention just as he captured his army’s.
The human stories of the underdogs were given plenty of time, with Nick Asbury’s Pistol linking the two groups. The mini-tragedy of the Eastcheap crowd had some poignancy- Asbury’s revelation of his wife’s death, the melancholy discussion of Falstaff’s life, Wela Frasier’s Boy showing his nerves alone in the war, the hanging of Nym and Bardolph and Henry’s final cradling of the Boy’s body on the battlefield all struck a chord, their story evoking a real sadness against the big screen backdrop of the main action. Parallel to this ran the soldiers, in particular Jonathan Slinger’s Fluellen, as cocky as any of Slinger’s creations and very funny. In his final appearance though, punching Pistol in the nose and forcefeeding him leeks, the lines of humour and horror were blurred slightly in an uncomfortable scene of physical abuse, only relieved by Slinger resorting to whacking Pistol with the leeks Basil Fawlty-style.
Interestingly, the theatre was packed out with school groups, which drew to my attention that this production, of all eight, was the one with least references to the others. There were occasional moments, such as Henry and the footsoldier squaring up to each other after the gauntlet episode in a manner reminiscent of their earlier performances as Hal and Hotspur, but there were no ghosts, no funereal music and very few moments of inspired cross-casting. Not something that you need for a production that, after all, should be coherent in and of itself, but it struck me as a shame that the final production of the eight is the one that felt least a part of the sequence. A small gripe though. It was a solid production and a fitting end to what has been a very good couple of years. Role on February for all eight in sequence!