March 18, 2013, by Peter Kirwan
Henry V (Edward’s Boys) @ The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon
When I first saw Edward’s Boys, they were a group of mostly eleven year olds performing extracts of John Lyly’s Endymion in a campus drama studio. Last night, the same company (indeed, with many of the same actors) filled the Swan Theatre to bursting with an audience including knights of the realm, RSC actors and directors and scholars from around the country, in addition to proud parents. No one does a school play quite like King Edward VI School.
The company’s raison d’être is the performance of plays written for the early modern child companies, providing something equivalent to the gender confusion, playful satire and carnival nature of these exciting but neglected plays. To take on Shakespeare is more of a leap, but director and drama teacher Perry Mills had a clear rationale. The School performed the play in 1913, with a professional actor as Chorus, as part of the Stratford festival season. Retrospectively, the production gained poignancy as several of the company went on the following year to fight in real French trenches, with at least three of the cast killed on the Western Front. The combination of centenary and the timeliness of the opportunity to reflect on young men – little more than boys – dying in conflicts abroad made for a sombre undercurrent.
The production’s interest in the fate of its boys was made clear through the pervasive use of objects and furniture that foregrounded the schoolboy identity of the actors. Many of the company wore school uniform throughout, while others wore the school’s cadet fatigues, rugby jerseys or the cap of a French exchange student. Pleasingly, there was no attempt at consistency – we were invited to see the school performing itself haphazardly and playfully. Some soldiers wielded cricket bats; Henry wore a prefect badge; the Boy rallied troops by blowing on a PE whistle. Yet the dislocation of elements and periods meant this was less of a nostalgia piece than a haunting, as schoolboys ghosted across the fields of Agincourt.
This central conceit was anchored by the towering performance of Tim Pigott-Smith, an old boy of the School continuing the tradition of having a professional actor play Chorus. Here, Chorus was a schoolmaster in the Edward’s tradition, suited and robed, and sat behind an enormous ornate desk evoking the early 20th century public school classroom. While it may have at first seemed that Piggott-Smith’s presence was a gratuitous cameo, this was quickly dispelled as the Chorus remained on stage for almost the entire performance. Speaking his verses as if teaching a class (drawing a particular laugh on ‘those that have not read the story’ with its implied wagging of the finger), he then watched quizzically as his boys took over the ‘classroom’, jumping on his desk or running across his floor. Throughout, he sketched dates and places onto a blackboard while the boys performed his history lesson; yet he was also displaced by them, yielding his desk for the young Henry.
For much of the play, the schoolroom aesthetic provided comedy. In an early highlight, while Henry Hodson’s Canterbury explained Salic law, Henry Edwards’s Ely frantically scribbled a deliberately complex map of names and lineages on the blackboard, drawing both applause and laughter as the two proudly presented the spidery mess as ‘clear as is the summer’s son’. Charlie Waters’s cheeky Boy took the opportunity of a clear stage to recline in Chorus’s chair and put his feet up on the desk in a lovely subversion of stage authority, and the French lesson had all the verve and cheek of boys learning rude words in class. The playfulness kept in mind the youth of the participants, the war always to some extent a sport.
Jeremy Franklin as Henry, however, had a gravity to him that belied his age, gathering the younger boys together and infusing them with the energy necessary to combat. The strength of the all-boy company for this play was the range of ages and the camaraderie and empathy needed to protect the more vulnerable, with some of the actors twice the height of others. Henry galvanised his troops in the manner of a team captain, pulling them into a huddle for the ‘band of brothers’ speech and standing on the Master’s desk to call them back unto the breach. He led through emotion, weeping openly following his encounter with Williams and collapsing in sobs to the floor. Seeing the part played so young stressed the sense of a burden on young shoulders, which in turn made for some implicit commentary on the king’s piety and coldness in sentencing the sobbing Bardolph. His adherence to strict and even naive moral codes was a reminder that this king was yet to mature fully, to develop the flexibility to handle justice and injustice simultaneously.
In a cast of almost fifty students it is hard to pick out individuals. The production’s strongest moments were its group scenes, including a spectacular movement sequence as Henry began trudging determinedly at the end of the first half. His soldiers began stamping their feet in time and clung to his tails, creating a mass beast of rugged desperation. As they trudged on and were anointed by priests who passed through them, the soldiers began coughing, some falling and being dragged to their feet, before they finally ran off to another battle. Moments such as this acted as a reminder of the vulnerability of the boys’ bodies, emphasised further following the killing of the boys and in the final scatterings of petals from the balconies. Yet the vulnerability was also inverted to interesting effect: the smallest boys were the ones who arrested the towering Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, for example, and the diminutive Pascal Vogiaridis as John Bates was a voice of wisdom on the evening before Agincourt.
The comic scenes worked well, with bold attempts at a Scouse accent for Elliot Tawney’s scally Nym and a growling Cockney for Jack Fenwick’s Pistol. Pistol, with low slung trousers and baseball cap, was the lairy class outcast, swaggering about the stage and always ready to pick a fight, while Calum Mitchell’s Bardolph lumbered about failing to pull his dagger from its sheath. The hanging was performed on stage, the body suddenly appearing held aloft with a noose around its neck just as Henry admitted to Will Lindsay’s tall, immaculate Montjoy that ‘My numbers [are] lessen’d’. While there was no major underlying point about the comic characters, one saw how a bullying cruelty began to emerge. Fluellen’s revenge on Pistol saw him emerge with a group of rugby boys who grabbed him, forced him against the desk and pulled his trousers down as Fluellen brandished his leek. Thankfully the public school humiliation ritual went no further than a spanking with the leek, but as Pistol was left curled up and kicked on the floor, a sour taste remained that undercut the comradeship of the previous scene.
The female parts, always a highlight of these productions, were less prominent but finely achieved. Barnaby Bos was a gifted Alice, clutching her handbag and tutting in a matronly disapproval of Henry’s wooing, while George Hodson’s chirpy Katharine clapped her hands in glee at the rude English words and delicately kept herself out of Henry’s reach during the wooing scene. Other highlights included George Matts as Fluellen, who reached repeatedly into his pockets for his bible of the wars and jumped up and down in unbridled joy when Henry called him his countryman; Alex Marcel as a gruff and contemptuous Exeter during his delivery of Henry’s message to the Dauphin; and Lindsay’s Montjoy finally brought low and bloody following the final battle.
If there was one disappointment, it was that the other promised highlight of the production, the rediscovered music by Vaughan Williams written for the 1913 season and played for probably the first time since then, was rather underwhelming and rested lightly on a production so full of noise and bodies. More effective were the choral numbers that accentuated moments of remembrance, culminating in a final procession to lay flowers on what one would assume was Henry’s coffin, introduced by the Chorus, but in fact stood for the body of any boy killed in war. As the production closed, Henry returned to the stage and looked into the face of the griefstricken teacher who sat down heavily and, left alone in fading light, began writing notes. The pain of a teacher watching his boys taken from him was palpable, and a fittingly sober note on which to close a brave and ambitious production.