There must be something in the air, perhaps a vague patriotic yearning increased by the Olympics and the recent jubilee, since ‘Henry V’ seems to be the Shakespeare play to stage this summer. Adaptions include Propeller’s all-male version, The Globe’s English entry for the recent World Shakespeare Festival (and the first production of their new season) and the BBC’s ‘Hollow Crown’ adaptation. Apparently Jude Law will be taking on the eponymous role next year. What is it about ‘Henry V’ that makes it this season’s hottest offering? It may well be the patriotism, the fighting and succeeding against the odds (and old enemies), or perhaps the constant debate about the value of war? I’m not entirely sure, other than it being a previously underperformed Shakespeare, but this massive amount of competition does pose the question of how to keep it fresh when everyone’s at it.
For those who have somehow managed to so far avoid a production this season, centres around the events leading up to and after the battle of Agincourt in 1415, a massive victory for the English forces against the French. As the last of the ‘Henrys’ it is also the conclusion of a coming of age story where the previously errant Prince Hal proves his worth as a monarch. Part of the Old Red Lion Theatre’s Rep Season, this interpretation is relocated to Iraq. There’s the Labour mug on the table, the Blair-clone politician, a fake makeshift bomb and references to Abu Ghraib. One of the main speeches, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”, is beautifully deconstructed, transforming a rallying cry mid-battle to a coldly rehearsed politician’s speech trotted out before the waiting media. The romantic sub-plot is cut, and what is left is a cynical look at the politics of war. Though occasionally pushed a bit too far, with some montages of Blair and Bush, this transference of setting fits, and brings a new perspective to the play. The sparse stage heightens the tension and the confined performance area meant that uncomfortable moments could not be hidden from.
At points the action was slightly confusing, the small cast of six meant that multiple roles were taken, and in some cases not only were the actors doubling up, but so were the characters – with numerous King Henrys. I have a feeling that if I hadn’t been seeing a ‘Henry V’ every two weeks or so this summer I may have had more trouble with the plot, but the cast work so brilliantly within these constraints it’s simply a minor fault rather than a large problem (the physicality of the cast when switching characters changed so much that had their faces been covered I would have sworn they were all different people).
If you haven’t seen Henry V go. If you’ve already seen a production of Henry V go anyway.