A matinee-idol reading to sweep you along

Henry V (Opera House, Manchester)

It must be the definitive production of this heroic play. Terry Hands has manipulated the Royal Shakespeare Company to a point where there are no avenues left to explore, and created a version - like so many RSC efforts - to win international acclaim and make Shakespeare fashionable and exciting.

Instead of hurling the team headlong into patriotic fervour - although there's plenty of that - he considers doubt and uncertainty, human fallibility; and when Agincourt victory comes, it is because of brotherhood, cameraderie, a sense of responsibility to themselves and to one another. Is the war worth it?

The production is well aware of Henry's time as Prince Hal, the Henry IV days of the common man; and it anticipates Henry VI as it confirms the king's acceptance of full monarchy and lonely leadership, a rejection of the flesh-pots in exchange for a place in history.


Alan Howard runs the full gamut of the roles - regal, ecstatic, self-questioning, passionate, heroic - his Richard Burton tones making music of blank verse and giving him a miraculous range of expression. It's a matinee-idol reading to sweep you along and make your hair stand on end with fervour and unexpected reaction, enough to forgive its occasional over-theatricality.

He even lords it over the spectacle, the pageantry - all that rich, glittering armour of the French against the tatty, long-suffering English foot-soldiers, who look like refugees pushing their cart away from Mother Courage; each one clearly defined personality deep as you can go and stamping his contribution indelibly on the mind.

The production opens in in rehearsal, all jeans and T-shirts, while Chorus (a wondrously amiable and concerned performance from Emrys James, comic and solemn at once) sets the scene, pleading sincerely "Admit me, Chorus to this history".

By the time he reaches "Now all the youth of England is on fire", a great closed flower of material opens up to make a giant canopy of heraldry, which in turn becomes a grey battle background, and actors rush away to don costume and character, while your heart beats faster.

Musicians on high scaffolding play the stirring music for fighting and for love.

There is fun and laughter in the reading, and a terrible melancholy, a sickening irony. It's if the text were written yesterday, so acceptable is the detail of interpretation for today.

Tom Parkinson

Oldham Evening Chronicle, 21.7.76.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry V