Henry V (Shakespeare’s Globe/Headlong) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

There have been anti-heroic Henry Vs before, but rarely does one commit quite so thoroughly to the bit as did Holly Race Roughan’s production for Shakespeare’s Globe. A collaboration with Headlong, Roughan’s production conflated anti-heroism with anti-theatricalism, or at least with a deconstructed approach to the performance event that formally punctured rhetorical acts of performance. The production was perhaps encapsulated best by Oliver Johnstone’s Henry delivering ‘Once more unto the breach’ alone on the stage, sitting against a wall with his arms wrapped around his tucked-in legs, rocking gently as he forced out the words in anguish. Yet in its self-conscious attempt to undermine both Henry and Henry V at all turns, the production at times also risked undermining its own purpose, its aesthetic of unfinishedness inadvertently echoing some ideas that weren’t fully followed through.

This production worked most powerfully as a character study of a young, entitled, white man thrust into a position of power for which he was almost entirely unsuitable. In an extended opening sequence, Johnstone and Luke Thallon (understudying on-book for the ill Helena Lymbery) played out a heavily edited version of the final encounter between Hal and Henry IV from 2 Henry IV. Hal defended himself to his father and reconciled with him, but then Henry, coughing, stumbled from his chair and died on the floor while his son tried to revive him. The entry of Henry’s brothers John (Joshua Griffin) and Thomas (James Cooney) to the sight of Henry kneeling over his father’s dead body with the crown on the floor next to them set a tone for the fear that Henry struck even in those closest to him, as well as implying that Henry was driven throughout the ensuing play by a desire to please his dead father. Henry IV returned as a silent interlocutor on the night before Agincourt, the figure to whom Henry V addressed his tortured anguish about the battle he was about to fight.

Henry was characterized by his insecurity throughout, his need to reinforce his power through intimidation and violence, and the cut amplified all moments that showed Henry channelling that violence. Right from the initial challenge of the tennis balls, Henry flew into a screaming rage at the ambassadors (Eleanor Henderson and Sule Rimi, understudying on-book for Geoffrey Lumb), who sat calmly, smiling at the effect their insult had on the inexperienced English king. But Henry’s true nature came into focus during the conspiracy scene. Grey and Cambridge were cut, making Scroop (Dharmesh Patel) the sole target of Henry’s rage; to the shock of his brothers, who stood close, disapproving but not intervening, Henry’s anger while castigating Scroop boiled over into physical violence, and he throttled Scroop to death. Scroop later returned in a bit of thematic doubling as Montjoy, the French herald who leered over a stricken Henry as the ghost of the man he had killed returned to taunt him. But as the production went on, Henry increasingly learned to exorcise his ghosts and commit to his violence.

So: when Nym (Georgia Frost) pleaded to Henry for Bardolph’s life, Henry didn’t miss a beat in confirming that ‘We would have all offenders so cut off’, and before exiting he added an extra reminder to ‘Kill Bardolph’. Bardolph (Jon Furlong) appeared standing on a chair while members of the ensemble danced a Morris around him, before suddenly his neck appeared to snap and he stood there, swaying gently, while the interval began. Later, Henry ordered Fluellen (Griffin), his right-hand man in enforcing violence, to snap the neck of the captured Louis the Dauphin (Henderson) at the conclusion of the Battle of Agincourt. This onstage execution was an act of revenge for the death of his two brothers in the battle (whose sacrifice here replaced that of the Duke of York in the text, making the consequences of Henry’s violence more personal to him), and fuelled with blood-lust, Henry took pleasure in giving the order for everyone else to kill their prisoners. Earlier, when negotiating for the surrender of Harfleur, Henry had the Governor (Rimi) sat on a chair in an interrogation room while Henry rolled up his sleeves; the terrified acquiescence of the Governor prompted a genial, but controlling, slap on the shoulder and stomach from Henry, before Henry sprawled across his own interrogation chairs and announced that he would be the governor’s guest that evening.

The choices weren’t subtle, then. The willingness of the company (Cordelia Lynn was the credited dramaturg) to rearrange the text, kill off additional characters, and rework the scenarios of the play to make almost everything into a war crime, gave a clarity of purpose to the company’s reasons for taking on the play. Johnstone was powerful throughout, working hard to turn any potential moment of charisma into one instead of danger or smugness. His joy at hearing just how many French had died was sickening, and his demand that the victory be attributed to God was a cloying bit of political rhetoric that he seemed to genuinely believe even as he laughed off the death of his brothers. His incentivising of his troops took the form of shouting at them, shoving them into action, during both the end of ‘Once more unto the breach’ as the soldiers joined the lone king, and during ‘Band of brothers’, where John – taking Westmorland’s place as the initial doubter – was terrified throughout of where Henry’s criticism of his faint heart was leading. Henry was wracked by anxiety throughout and channelled all of it into doubling down on brutality and anger, and everyone else stood silently by, complicit in his violence, which in turn seemed to reassure him that this was the correct action. As an indictment of how society props up strongman tyrants, this was pointed.

Henry’s violence spilled down the ranks, too. Gower (Cooney) and Fluellen were both violent men, and there was tension between the two of them (in a somewhat disappointing flattening of the political valences of the text, it was Gower who mocked Fluellen’s Welshness, prompting Fluellen to ask ‘What is my nation?’). Fluellen whipped along Pistol (Patel) and others, prompting Patel to roar at the ‘Welsh c**t’ before running offstage. Pistol was a somewhat lumbering presence, an embittered man who took pleasure in bullying Le Fer (Henderson) when he beat him in battle. But Pistol was in turn bullied by Gower and Fluellen; in a shockingly violent rendition of 5.1, Gower acted as nervous look-out while Fluellen pinned Pistol down and suffocated him with a rag bathed in his own sweat. The two left Pistol for dead, and while he did at least revive, this was yet another reminder (if one was needed) of how behaviours trickle down.

The abuse was more cartoonish in relation to Michael Williams (Frost). On the night before Agincourt, Henry’s umbrage at Williams’s gentle criticism of the king was yet another instance of his temper blowing up immediately and violently, he only just restraining himself from punching Williams there and then, an escalation which surprised Williams but which Williams was ready to meet. The next day, Williams’s box of Fluellen’s face was met with an almost uncontainable response from Fluellen who had to be bodily restrained. But Henry’s revelation of the trick, performed with full-bodied laughter and a mocking dance as he waved the gloves in front of Williams, was the more reprehensible action. The dismissal of Williams with a reward was undermined by Fluellen’s malicious rubbing of his own shoes on top of Williams’s trainers, damaging the shoes that he offered a penny to fix. Williams left in disgust, and Henry’s unfeeling abuse of his own men spoke more truly to his self-absorbed pursuit of victory than any rhetoric about God and community. The French were not necessarily any better; Louis lounged with Orléans (Cooney) and mocked the English while the Constable (Furlong) tutted. But they were outclassed by the viciousness of Henry.

The bluntness of this production’s treatment of Henry and the culture of violence he inculcated was mirrored in the deconstructed approach to theatre itself. This, however, was rather less successful. The device of having characters announce act and scene number, location, and entrance directions was one instance of the multiple approaches to alienation. But coupled with the unfortunate necessity of two actors being on-book (not their fault, and both were excellent, especially Thallon who had a lot of complex blocking), the choice to have actors largely in what looked like their own clothes, the use of cold electrical lighting, and the sickly mint-green, plastic-y set (which extended a green theatre curtain over the tiring house, covered the stage and its sides in blank green, and used green chairs, all in the same monochrome colour), the production often felt like a staged reading. An unfinished aesthetic is a rich idea in theory, a way of decoupling the play from pageantry and rhetorical force. But there were two major issues with this. Firstly, it didn’t work. Even during his most abusive moments (of which more below), Henry still elicited laughter from sections of the audience for his cruel jokes and mocking of those with less power than him. It’s hard to blame the company for this, as they went far further than most in attempting to deconstruct the play’s cultural baggage, but the tension between production and play still felt not completely worked out in the production’s favour. Secondly, and perhaps relatedly, the messy aesthetic flattened out distinctions of status and power that, combined with the dissociation from time or place, evacuated the production of much of its specific potential for political and structural critique. Designer Moi Tran’s programme note explaining that the green set was designed to evoke the play’s engagement with the exploitation of natural resources and colonisation felt entirely nonsensical, as nothing in the text, in the production choices, or indeed even in the colours of the set, suggested anything of the kind, and the raising and lowering of the green curtain to reveal a mirrored metal wall seemed disconnected from anything other than the need to make the doors in the tiring house available to the actors. As a result, the deconstructed approach felt like a get-out-of-jail-free card for choices that felt purely oppositional to the architecture and associations of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse rather than coherent unto themselves.

Notwithstanding the mess of the stage, the production’s boldness in pursuing Henry as an abhorrent warmonger led to some powerful work in the final scenes. The French-language scene was cut (or so it seemed), and while there was an earlier reference in the negotiations to Katherine (Joséphine Callies) as being offered to Henry, she didn’t appear until the sit-down of 5.2. Here, the Queen (Henderson) took on the role of Alice, remaining with her daughter when Henry demanded that she stay. The ‘wooing’ scene that followed was entirely in keeping with what we had seen of Henry thus far. He sat down with the tiny young woman and told her bluntly that he loved her; then, when she was unable to give him the answers he wanted, he got angry. This was the scene where the audience’s laughter at Henry’s jokes jarred for me badly with the aggression of Henry’s approach and the fear on Katherine’s face; she kept looking at her mother for support, who was unable to help her. Henry forced kisses on Katherine, at one point backing her into a corner, and the only act of defiance Katherine was able to offer was to turn her face slightly when Henry attempted to kiss her formally in public so that he got her cheek rather than her lips. But Katherine’s fear and helplessness, along with that of her mother, was what then fuelled the end of 5.2, as Henry left the stage and Katherine started asking her mother what various words were in English. The relocation of the language scene to this point worked beautifully to make clear the connection of this ‘lesson’ to Katherine’s future as a bartered part of the peace settlement. The Queen was in floods of tears, barely able to respond to Katherine as Katherine, increasingly angry and distressed, demanded to know how she should explain the parts of her body in English, the demands for more words becoming ever more aggressive until the Queen fled the stage, unable to see this through any further.

The production ended with a scene reminiscent of the RSC’s production of Ionesco’s Macbett from 2007. Patel entered as an immigration officer, reading out questions from the citizenship test in a humourless tone to Katherine, who sat, alone and unaided, on a chair. This absurdist sequence was funny, though interminably long, as the immigration officer put Katherine through the wringer as the trafficked woman was forced to answer questions about how the UK prevents trafficking, about Shakespeare quotations, about great British victories (Katherine answered that one with no problem), and other choice bits of trivia designed to ensure that Katherine – and, by extension, all immigrants – are aligned with Britain’s self-justifying narratives about itself before becoming part of this society. A cleaner brought on a Hetty hoover and cleared up around them, while a mournful, minor-key version of ‘God Save the King’ played just offstage. The point was, as typical for this production, blunt, offering a critique of British imperialism by both satirizing Britain’s understanding of itself and also making Britain look small and petty. The inevitable humour of the scene, though – even if Patel and Callies played it dead straight, the music and hoovering made clear it was funny – perhaps detracted somewhat from the brutality of the fact that this is what immigrants are forced to go through; what played here as absurdist is a lived reality, and the bathetic ‘That’s the end of our show’ from the onstage cleaner played for the ironizing laugh rather than for a call to action. The production was unambiguous on where it stood on the tyranny of war, the dangers of toxic masculinity in leadership, and the abuse of those who are different to us, whether through nation or status. But the tonal confusion as the production veered between comic ironizing and appeals to emotional reaction through shocking violence muddied its diagnosis of where those problems lay, and of what needs to be done.

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