With the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt looming the Royal Shakespeare Company has returned to the Bard’s histories for its most famous and warlike saga, Henry V.
The glaringly obvious obstacle to overcome is its epic skirmishes that feature thousands of soldiers, horse, and bloody battlefields.
That’s fine to re-create on screen but, as the company’s elder statesman, Oliver Ford Davies as the narrator, Chorus, constantly reminds us, we have to push our imaginations into overdrive to picture the scenes.
Even the RSC can’t supply horse and cannon for its vast thrust stage at Stratford-upon-Avon but it does come up with a high-tech 3D effect backcloth which constantly tested my eyesight.
The RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, has been rather playful with his production which opened tonight. Indeed, there is so much humour that it is bordering on being a comedy.
After a jovial bit of business at the start we’re treated to the ribald antics of the wastrels Nym, Bardolph and Pistol, the joshing between rival army officers, and the young king’s pathetically endearing but gauche efforts to woo a French princess – not to mention her laughable attempts at trying to learn Anglais.
There is also Robert Gilbert’s fetching turn as the cowardly French Dauphin, who presents Henry with tennis balls, flicks his well groomed pageboy haircut, and makes for a dapper soldier in haute-couture armour.
We’re faced with an almost empty stage. There sits the throne and upon it the crown.
Chorus, dressed almost for a Sunday morning’s gardening in relaxed corduroy trousers, old ill-fitting cardie and a red scarf, ambles on and fingers the royal trinket, tempted to try it on, before a half-dressed Alex Hassell, water bottle in hand, strides across the stage to relieve him of it.
It’s a moment played for laughs before the serious business of invading France gets under way.
This is very much Hassell’s show and he has earned that crown. On stage almost the entire 155 minutes, we are presented with a much dour, mature and determined king who is a far cry from the devil-may-care cavalier, Prince Hal, who drank and caroused his way through Henry IV parts 1 & 2.
Hassell gives us a very natural, subtle and realistic warrior king who isn’t flashy or demonstrative but who comes across a little like our modern day Prince Harry. He prefers the company of soldiers to diplomats and can’t be doing with the trappings of state.
Presented with convoluted evidence that France belongs, by ancestry, to England, he looks blank and confused after having an education on the battlefields, not the classrooms.
Some of Henry V’s most famous speeches go by almost unnoticed – once more unto the breach is delivered at breakneck speed as the king darts across the stage – until we get to the St Crispin’s Day call to arms.
It isn’t the most rousing, Hassell’s voice got quieter as the opening night progressed, but it is heartfelt and sincere. As king, he looked exhausted and his relief at the end of the conflict is palpable.
There are some fine support performances. It goes without question that the superbly spoken Ford Davies gives a splendid turn as Chorus.
And sit back and enjoy the scene between soldiers, Irishman MacMorris (Andrew Westfield), Welshman Fluellen (Joshua Richards) and the incomprehensible Scot Jamy (Simon Yadoo).
Poor Jane Lapotaire waits until the final moments of the play before coming on for one speech as Queen Isobel while Simon Thorp makes a dignified and regal King of France.
A thrilling, surprisingly funny and powerfully told finale to the Henry trilogy.
Henry V plays in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until October 25. It will also be screened into cinemas on October 21 as part of the theatre’s Live From Stratford-Upon-Avon initiative.
Alex Hassell gives a mature and compelling turn as the warrior king in The Royal Shakespeare Company’s thrilling production of Henry V at Stratford-Upon-Avon.