Henry V Review
As the concluding part to what has been collectively grouped by the RSC as Shakespeare's 'King & Country' plays, Henry V has the same consistency of look and feel that characterised the earlier productions of Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. Director Gregory Doran however has also clearly thought through the overarching cycle in terms of the line of succession and the gradual growth of personality that sees Alex Hassell's Hal assume the crown jewel of the series with some degree of satisfaction and authority. Doran however has issues with some aspects of the concluding part of Shakespeare's English History Plays that doesn't always work to the advantage of the play's traditional strengths.
Principally, it's clear that Doran has problems with the strong nationalistic call to war aspect of Henry V. This might have been less of an issue earlier productions of the play where the call to arms fitted with the militaristic mood of the times. The hunger for war and glory that might have passed as acceptable for Laurence Olivier's 1944 film version, doesn't sit quite as comfortably in the political climate of the present day. There is a valid argument of course for Henry V being about so much more than an account of the historical battle of Agincourt or about English nationalism, and there are several other strong themes worth exploring in Shakespeare's play, but it is undoubtedly important for a contemporary production to find resonance and significance for a present-day production.
There are quite a number of quirky but memorable scenes in Henry V that suggest that we take a wider view of the historic battle and the role of the crown. There are the amusing French interludes, not least of which is the rather silly but fun scene of the Princess Katherine learning that English words sound rather rude, and there are also the notable contributions of the Welsh, Irish and Scottish soldiers. While the adventures of Pistol, Bardolph et al are a continuation/replacement for the Falstaff factor of the previous plays, most of these other scenes are quite unlike anything you'll find elsewhere in Shakespeare, and undoubtedly they have significance beyond their comic potential.
Mainly however, one notable element that isn't seen elsewhere to such an extent is the use of the 'Chorus' as a guide to string together time and events and make observations and direct commentary to the audience. Shakespeare doesn't have to appeal to the audience in any of his other plays to strive to imagine "a kingdom for a stage" or question "can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?". Since the words of the chorus often contradict what actually takes place, Doran uses this as an reason to question whether the real motives of the work are indeed really anything to do with the call to war and nationalistic drum-beating, and makes use of the opportunity to look at the play in the broader context of 'what war means', and he's undoubtedly right to do so.
What marks Henry V as significantly different from the earlier 'King & Country' plays is this wider perspective. It's not just about rebellious nobles and royal campaigns to assert and prove their authority to rule - although that is very much what appears to be Harry's objective in his staking of the claim to the lands of France in the long justification that opens the play and in his ruthless quelling of rebellion even before travelling to France. Nowhere else however do we get such an input and commentary from the common soldiers from all four corners of Britain on how the pursuit of the Crown's aims affects them. We even get one soldier directly challenging the King on equal terms, albeit in a position where he is unaware of the true identity of the person he is addressing.
There are other points that suggest a wider context and a less precipitous rush to war, Shakespeare clearly using Agincourt to look at the dangers of pursuing the war in Ireland during his own time, so Doran's direction and purpose is a valid one that is handled reasonably well, if it doesn't always draw out the traditional strengths of the work. I'm not particularly fond of the tub-thumping speeches, the band of brothers solidarity of nationalistic fervour or the calls to glory in war, but they do undoubtedly form a large part of what Henry V is, despite the efforts of the Chorus to undermine them somewhat. Underplaying them - Hassell delivering his 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends' to an empty stage for example - does inevitably have an impact on the tone and character of the work to the slight detriment of the drama and to the impact of this play as a concluding part to the plays that have come before it. That is the humour of it.
Taken as a whole however, 'King & Country' succeeds in the emphasis it gives to the relationship between king with country in each of the respective plays. The choices made in casting and in the characterisation of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V all show a variety of rulers with different ways of ruling. The faults of each are apparent in personality, in inclination towards mercy, and in their attitudes towards embarking upon war; all the things that make a ruler's reign memorable and determine whether it will be judged to be a successful one. In Henry V you see that growth between the "promise of his greener days" in the Henry IV plays and "these he makes now". There's strength of purpose and greater wisdom in his choices, in the exercise of his rule and in how much he is in touch with the subjects from the far-flung reaches of his kingdom.
Doran brings that out well, as does Alex Hassell, who really can be seen to have grown into the role of the king through the lived experience of Henry IV Part 1 and 2. He looks the part, he's taut and driven and humanises the Crown well. Doran's touch of allowing Harry to even be punched on the nose as part of his quarrel with the common soldier at the camp works well in this context but it does inevitably come at the cost of some of the more traditional strengths of the work. (You couldn't imagine Laurence Olivier getting nutted this way!). I was also less taken with the production design this time. It remains largely consistent with the earlier 'King & Country' plays, but looks somewhat garish and lacking in naturalism this time around, the stage looking more like it is made of mother-of-pearl than representing the furrows of French battlefield.
In relation to the production design also, I saw this recording in its live broadcast, and I still can't concentrate on one scene at the French for fear of someone losing an eye or being impaled on a spike in the armour of the Dauphin's horse. How that got past Health and Safety, I'll never know, particularly when Doran does his best elsewhere to make the fields of Agincourt less of a dangerous battlefield than a more equitable modern workplace where everyone had their part to play. By the conclusion, such is Harry's adoration of Katherine in this production that you would even swear that the King embarked on the whole enterprise as a clumsy way of winning himself a bit of French fancy for a wife. That's perhaps a little facetious, but then so is Shakespeare in his working of history and Doran is true to the spirit of Henry V here, if not quite in the way we know it.
The RSC's 2015 Henry V is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. A 'King & Country' set collecting the entire cycle of plays (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V) is also available. The Henry V Blu-ray disc, like all the others, is BD50. The transfer of the live HD broadcasts is 1080/60p (as opposed to 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.
As with the previous releases of the RSC's productions, the quality of the High Definition transfer is of an exceptionally high standard. The image quality is pristine on the Blu-ray release. The production here is often dark and low-lit, the theatrical lighting retained without additional brightening for the live HD broadcast recording. That means that the image can be slightly softer than you might find in a film transfer, but it's appropriate here and necessary to the theatrical experience. That said, the HD transfer handles the difficult theatrical lighting conditions well, the image always looking clear, with no evident issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.
Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. Filmed live under theatrical conditions with no visible microphones on the person or around the stage, there are no significant issues with picking up the dialogue. The music however is mixed considerably louder than the dialogue and can catch you unawares. The loud explosions and battle noise also fairly thumps out and reverberates on the LFE channel in this production.
English subtitles only are provided.
As with all the releases from the RSC so far, there's a full Director's Commentary here from Greg Doran that can be listened to during the performance. The familiar featurettes also cover different aspects of the production. In 'The King and the Chorus' Alex Hassell talks about the transformation of Hal from young rake to ruler, while Oliver Ford Davies points out the unreliable role of the Chorus in the play. An uncredited James Shapiro looks at the historical context in which the play was written in A Nation at War: Writing Henry V. There is also a Cast Gallery and a booklet with an essay by Anne Curry that touches mainly on the historical background of the Battle of Agincourt, and there's a brief synopsis of the play. The booklet is translated for French and German also.
Some aspects of the the RSC's Henry V might go against the traditional treatment of one of Shakespeare's most famous and celebrated plays, but Gregory Doran has the bigger picture in mind for the span of the 'King & Country' history plays. If the conclusion satisfies on most fronts however a lot of the reason for it is down to Alex Hassell, whose assumption of the role of Henry V is every bit as transformative as Shakespeare's characterisation of the young king. "If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make", Harry is warned by the soldiers who unquestioningly follow him as he makes his claim on France, and if the means employed aren't entirely persuasive, Doran and Hassell make a good case for their own cause.