A Definitive Henry V on Our Shores

While we are having a Bi-centennial, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is enjoying its centennial. What could be more appropriate than this distinguished company's visiting us, albeit briefly, for a sort of hands-across-the-sea celebration. For, after all, Shakespeare is America's great national dramatist as well as Britain's, and while we may be split by an ocean and have had a certain temporary disagreement over taxes, we are at least irrevocably bound by a language that found its fullest flower in Shakespeare.

Last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, we were given the RSC's definitive staging of Henry V, which may well be to history what Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream was to romance. Definitive? Well, in the plundered and disputed world of Shakespearean production nothing is definitive, but undeniably Terry Hands's direction of this complex and heroic play, with Alan Howard as Henry giving what is the finest performance of his very considerable career, will leave an indelible mark on the play. Here is a Henry as patriot, dreamer, scholar, soldier, lover. It is a Henry who has developed from the wayward but strangely knowing Prince Hal who wandered like a spring breeze with cold currents through the two earlier plays Henry IV, Part I, and Henry IV, Part II. And thereby hangs a tale.

When this Henry V was first staged last year for the company's centennial (Yes, it was actually 1975 - but every journalist occasionally white-lies in his first paragraph for effect), it was envisaged as part of the complete trilogy starting with the two parts of Henry IV and ending with this production. As a trilogy it proved wonderfully successful when I saw it in England - but unfortunately such is the poverty, artistic poverty at least, of our two respective nations that it proved too expensive to bring the three plays over, so we must be content with one - this Henry Sampler.

I mention this because it is perhaps a little difficult to see the full brilliance of this production, or of Mr. Howard's tensely eloquent portrayal, out of their context. Mr. Hands is an extraordinarily clever director. He has understood that this particular trilogy is very political in its import. So we must comprehend Shakespeare's view of kingship and patriotism not merely through the eyes of living history - a Holinshed chronicle come to life - but also through eyes, ears and minds dominated by the Elizabethan world picture. Shakespeare was a court poet - indeed, in those days the only other alternative for a poet was prison.

At one time it was fashionable to denigrate Shakespeare's history plays - to regard them as of less weight than the tragedies, of less poetic value than the romances and of less gossamer charm than the comedies. This view no longer holds. A play such as Henry V, with its warring politics, its constant interchange of character and its cast and panoramic view of a lost England, is anything but negligible. Indeed in its sheer juxtaposition of people, or in its multiplicity of incidents, even more, in the development of Henry the patriot king, it has a depth of texture not many of the other plays in the Shakespearean canon possess.

In Henry V Shakespeare made the fullest use of the mystery and mechanism of the theater. The very idea of the figure of the Chorus coming on and, insidiously, asking the audience to use its imagination to see the sound and fury of battle, the knights and soldiers, the courts and palaces, shrewdly sums up the very image and method of the basic theater. Mr. Hands, and his fascinating designer Farrah, use this histrionic sleight of hand as the starting point of the play - and also as a consistent way of keeping the wary distance of history between Shakespeare's morals and our own.

The play opens on a gray stage. Music and lighting platforms flank the bare arena. Actors are walking around in civilian clothes, chatting, exercising, glancing curiously at the audience. The lights go down - the Chorus takes over. It is Emrys James, funny, urbane and somehow looking a little like Bertolt Brecht - and, in the Brechtian sense, alienated. The envoy of France enters in 15th-century court dress. The drab floorcloth rises to offer a shining canopy full of bright heraldry with British lions and French fleur de lys, and slowly the other actors dress up for the play - except for Mr. James, who remains wandering the play in his street clothes maintaining a link with today.

Mr. Hands and Mr. Farrah - to say nothing of Stewart Leviton's lighting and the music of Guy Woolfenden - provide the arena and the framework of an interpretation. An area in which the actors can move with a great deal of freedom. Of late, I think it is by now no secret, the RSC, under its artistic director Trevor Nunn, has been moving into a freer and more creative relationship between the director and the actors, so while the dense context and reverberating historical images of the play unquestionably belong to Mr. Hands, who has also coordinated the performance, the actors have also left their mark.

Mr. Howard's Henry is triumphant. The voice is blunt, almost abrasive, but almost shivers with passion, the face hard and boyish by turn, the stance awkward and yet commanding, he throws away lines like fragments of domestic poetry, but everything is encrusted with meaning yet executed with simplicity. In the middle of the Crispin's day speech, he calmly takes a 20-second pause and ends with his back to the audience. Such chances - when they work - are heroic.

The rest all deserve mention and they cannot have any in the brief traffic of a daily notice - I should have mentioned, of course, the great Mr. James, Tim Wylton, Richard Moore, Jeffrey Dench, Trevor Peacock and Oliver Ford-Davies, but I cannot. Our thanks must be enough. This is not just a good performance. It is a theatrical experience.

Clive Barnes

New York Times, 23.4.1976.

Playing Shakespeare/Henry V