A good case for kings

Historically kings may be outmoded, but dramatically we miss them.

Drama being an instrument for the apprehension of man, a king interests us partly because exciting things are likely to happen to him, partly because both what he does and what he suffers may affect thousands of others. Most of all, perhaps, the king interests us because he knows all this; there is hardly a moment when he can forget it.

This, of course, is the burden and the magic of Shakespeare's histories, plays which range the country, returning always to a royal base. Its definitive statement is the ceremony speech in Henry V, which is now being given searching, imaginative expression by Alan Howard at Stratford. As it should be: this speech follows a debate on the monarch's responsibility to his subjects; it details obsessively the symbols of royalty, describes the concept as a 'proud dream,' but offers no hope that it may be escapable. Henry by now is wedded to his office; nothing else of him is left.

Alan Howard as Henry V at Stratford

This speech is the summation not only of the play and of Terry Hands's production, but of the whole season. It may seem a little early to pronounce this verdict since we have yet to see any of the other plays. But this year Stratford is running backwards: Henry V is to be followed by the two parts of Henry IV (though Part I will actually, if inconsistently, precede Part II). The education of a prince is beyond doubt the subject of Henry IV, and it can be demonstrated - though not conclusively proved - that it is that of Henry V as well.

As yet, however, we have only the last play to go on, and its first night set up some curious, muted reverberations. We could not (and were not, I think, intended to) respond to the play wholly for itself, but neither could we bring to it fully-formed memories of earlier episodes. In the comedy scenes I warmed to Tim Wylton's Bardolph, with his pickled-beetroot nose and bleary intimations of better days, but when Henry gave the order for his death the production made demands on me I could not meet; I was obviously meant to remember their former relationship, which won't even be happening for a month or so. When it does, it will doubtless be enriched by our knowledge of its end. We shall feel like the White Queen, blessed with perfect recall of the future.

Meanwhile, Mr Hands's production (which before I forget, is very good indeed; the best evening I have had at Stratford in ages) presents us with a fascinating, but not altogether convincing, conflict. On the one hand there is Emrys James as the Chorus acclaiming Harry, almost from the outset, as 'the mirror of all Christian kings'; on the other there is Mr Howard having serious doubts. It takes him until the ceremony speech to become fully king in his own estimation; that he is king in Heaven's he cannot believe until after Agincourt, when he murmurs incredulously 'Oh God, thy arm was here.' The early conspiracy against him ('another fall of man') is greeted with agonised shock instead of the customary sanctimonious blandness. In other circumstances, he can put on a good show, a professional imitation of a hero-warrior. The interpretation suits Mr Howard almost too well; he can be rather an effortful actor himself, with a steely but over-obsessive grip on the verse. Like Henry he gets what he wants, which is fine, but you can see him trying, which isn't. Quibbling aside, he might loosen up a bit for the wooing of Katherine, by which time Henry is surely the man he wishes to be.

Mr James paints beautiful word-pictures (his seascapes are particularly seductive); and at the close of the play unexpectedly annexes the Duchy of Burgundy. I had noted that no Burgundy was named in the cast, and had rather expected his lines on the devastation of war to be given to Oliver Ford-Davies, a courteously forceful French Herald. Being emblematic they would come better from a herald than a chorus. While in France, I must pay additional homage to Geoffrey Hutchings, whose petulant Dauphin, an unsuccessful candidate for heroism, counterbalances Henry; to Ludmilla Mikael (beshrew her eyes) as the princess, and to Yvonne Coulette, her amused, amusing attendant.

On the home team Trevor Peacock's unexpectedly engaging Fluellen is partnered by a sturdily original Gower from Derek Smith. The same two actors in the first scene play at being bishops, Mr Smith more successfully than Mr Peacock. At this point, everybody is dressed in jeans and the stage is overhung by a large grey-green contraption with ungainly folds, looking like a giant upended artichoke. Once war has been declared it descends and reveals itself to be a dazzling stage-cloth in the pattern of a coat of arms. The general aspect becomes as pleasing as it is intelligent. It is worth going to Stratford merely to see the golden armour of the French catch the sun. The English, very properly, look to have cost much less. Farrah is the designer.

Robert Cushman

Observer, 13.4.75


Playing Shakespeare/Henry V