Sunday, October 25, 2015

Watching Henry V on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt

Six hundred years ago today, Friday 25 October 1415, an English army under Henry V defeated the French at the Battle of Agincourt.  Almost six hundred years later, 30 September 2015,  Helen and I attended a performance of Henry V put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon.

We had been staying nearby at Harvington in the Cotswolds and decided to visit Stratford for the day. I will talk about my overall impressions of Stratford in another post. For a moment, I want to focus on Henry V.

Helen has been interested in drama since she was young and has taken part in a number of Shakespearean productions, so we went looking for the Royal Shakespeare Company. There Helen found that a production of Henry V was on that night and that tickets were available. The lure of seeing Shakespeare performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Shakespeare's birthplace was irresistible, and we promptly bought tickets. Since Harvington was so close, we were able to return there, eat and get back for the production.

Employing 700 people, the Royal Shakespeare Company is a very substantial organisation. Its Stratford Complex has recently been refurbished at a cost of £112.8 million. That's a fair bit of money.

The main theatre is built in the form of an open rectangle around the stage, with various seating levels stretching up into the high ceiling.   The kit built into the ceiling including the various lighting boxes is quite phenomenal. This allows for the use of minimal sets, since varying back-drops can be projected onto curtains.

As it turns out, I had neither read nor seen Henry V. I thought I had read it, but as the play proceeded I realised that I could not have. It was completely unfamiliar and the inclusion of large slabs of what was apparently French in the dialogue came as a surprise. I found it an unsatisfying play, in some ways unformed. I really needed the program notes to help guide me through the performance.

The Battle of Agincourt forms a key part of the play.. It is here late in the play that the most famous lines from the play appear.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
To give you another perspective, here is Kenneth Branagh with the same speech, this time in full.

The politics surrounding the original play are confused, as were the events themselves all those years ago. Shakespeare was writing for multiple audiences, including a population weary of the war that had been raging in Ireland. To my mind, this mixture of audiences helps explain what I saw as disconnects within the play. Interestingly, the program notes themselves displayed similar ambivalence, feeling an apparent requirement to deprecate or explain certain things in the pay in a way that reflects current British cultural and political attitudes and uncertainties.

Coming down in the lift afterwards, I listened to a well dressed older group who were clearly regulars. This was, one averred, the best production of Henry V he had ever see, going on to compare it to various productions dating back to the 1944 film staring Laurence Olivier. Not having seen the play before, I couldn't comment. However, while I greatly enjoyed the play, I thought that there were weaknesses from a purely technical viewpoint in the production, including camping up some scenes better played a little straighter.


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