The Lively Arts / Sally Beauman
"...How will American audiences find Henry V - an orotund aberration or, as the RSC believes, complex and perturbing?........"
"But it's such an awful play," I was saying, "jingoistic, narrow, full of shallow rhetoric. The sort of play that people who write letters to newspapers quote when they want to prove how proud they are of being English."
"Wrong," said Terry Hands, politely.
We had got past the meat-and-potatoes stage of the meal, and the table was littered with coffee cups, wine glasses, disgustingly full ashtrays, notebooks, performance schedules, audition lists, and copies of Henry V. It was sometime in November, 1974, and Terry Hands was working his customary and compulsive fifteen-hour day, preparing for the next season at Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was to direct Henry IV, Parts I and II, Henry V, and a revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It would be the first time the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford's resident troupe, had mounted three new productions of the central plays in Shakespeare's history cycle since 1964, when John Barton and Peter Hall mounted the cycle in their celebrated "Wars of the Roses" season.
Alan Howard, who was to play Prince Hal and Hnery V, was sitting rather glumly in front of two empty packs of cigarettes and a glass of cheap brandy, reading the "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" speech. The argument was getting enjoyable: what I couldn't understand, being blithely dogmatic about a play I had nicely pigeonholed in my brain, was why anyone would want to direct or appear in the wretched Henry V. The Henry IV plays, absolutely, but Henry V?
Awful, orotund, Churchillian aberration, tossed off in a weak moment between the Henry IV plays and Hamlet, probably to pay his pub bills. A pageant play, creakily propped up by the Chorus, rife with pleas to the audience to use their imaginations to eke out the existence of the clockwork characters, as if Shakespeare himself were aware of the thinness of his imaginings. It's hard to find a critic, from Yeats (who thought Henry was a "ripened Fortinbras" speaking the language of an editorial-page article) to Shaw (who dismissed Henry as a "jingo hero....... an able young Philistine"), who has a good word to say either for the play or its protagonist.
"All wrong," said Terry Hands, warming up, and about to get ruder.
"Have you noticed," said Alan Howard, who wasn't really listening, "how many acting words there are in this speech? 'Imitate the action of the tiger,' 'conjure up the blood,' 'disguise fair nature.' Interesting......."
I read the play again. I still thought they were wrong, but there was a dodgy feeling at the back of my mind that I was missing something. That a lot of critics and audiences had missed something, too.
Our argument now seems a very long time ago. The production has played both at Stratford and at the Aldwych Theater in London, and on April 21 it comes to New York for a three-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, already nearly sold out. But how will American audiences respond to the play? Will they find it too jingoistically English, too warmongering, or will they find it as complex and perturbing a work as the company believes it to be? Certainly by the time the production opened in Stratford in March, 1975, I had changed my mind.
Constant exposure to the play - hearing it, listening to actors discussing it, rereading it, watching the first tentative run-throughs - all made me realize how wrong my initial judgment had been. Insread of the pageant play I and many others had insisted on, I began to see another play - a play much closer in spirit to the tragedies written shortly after it; a play that explored with wit, subtlety, and a sad irony the thin divide between acting and action, between intention and actuality; a play in which war is both a metaphor for the spiritual state of the men who wage it, and also a real event, a testing ground, for all of the characters.
The production took off on the first night: it moved in a clear, confident parabola from the first plea of the chorus to the great wooing scene at the end, and the final weary undercut of the last Chorus. It wiped out all the irrelevancies that had fogged the play, just as surely as Peter Brook's production, in 1970, wiped out the coy prettinesss that had for so long obscured our vision of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
And it had, as its core, a revelatory performance from Alan Howard that, if there is any theatrical justice, ought to have rescued forever Shakespeare's Henry V from the parade-ground patriotics to which he has customarily been relegated and placed him where he rightly belongs - in the world of quest and doubt shared by the heroes of the great tragedies.
This king began callow, dubious, reluctant, acting his role of leader/warrior with the force of desperation - not "ripened Fortinbras" so much as a man of Hamlet's sensibility, now king, having to deal with a Fortinbras. The events of the play come near to destroying him, as they do his army, but out of the near-destruction he plucks a new identity and a firm resolution.
During the next few days the notices came in, full of almost uniform praise.
"No words of mine," wrote Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times - if cranky, he can still occasionally get excited, no mean virtue in a critic - "can adequately convey the theatrical, visual, and, above all, spiritual splendor of Terry Hands's production of Henry V." The Daily Express bouncily rejoiced that "in a time of national adversity" the RSC could mount "such a gutsy, reviving production." Jean-Jacques Gautier, writing mandarin prose in Le Figaro, found the production "a marvel of understanding and clarity ......... everything is simple, noble, honest, pure, epic and yet austere........."
But the notices for Henry V were perhaps most
interesting because most of the critics missed the point. They couldn't quite
shake off their schoolboy expectations. They found the play rousing, but for
all the old, traditional reasons: reviews were riddled with preconceptions, but
laced with rich praise. They cheered the company hugely, because good reviews
always do, even wrongheaded ones; any actor who says otherwise is being less
Terry Hands, the director, joined the RSC in 1966 from the Liverpool Everyman Theater, which he founded. He has directed over twelve major productions for the RSC in that time, including a marvelously staged production of Peter Barnes's The Bewitched, in 1974 - which the English critics never came to grips with, but which was highly praised by John Simon in New York. Hands is almost alone among the established RSC directors (like John Barton, Trevor Nunn, and David Jones) in that he has managed to break out of what, one sometimes suspects, can be the stifling womb of the RSC organization, to do major work for other theaters: he has directed Richard III, Pericles, and Twelfth Night for the Comédie Française. And he is about to direct Verdi's Otello, with Solti conducting, for the Paris Opéra (in a production which will come to the Metropolitan Opera House in September).
His designer for Henry V was Farrah, an Algerian. Their partnership is felicitous; English critics have sometimes called their work "baroque," using the term as a perjorative, and it is true that some of their earlier work together tended toward overstatement. But their collaboration on the Henry cycle turned out to be perhaps their finest to date. It was daring, and there were moments - like the battle between Hotspur and Hal in Part I, each helmeted and visored in steel so that they looked like two evil and predatory insects rather than men; like the coronation of Henry V at the end of Part II, with Henry encased from head to foot in ritualistic golden armor; like the sudden unfurling of the great heraldic canopy that dominates the first half of Henry V - when the chill of excitement that is pure theater suddenly grips one's spine.
The composer for the play was Guy Woolfenden, the musical director of the RSC, who has also worked with Hands on a number of productions, including the Richard III and Pericles at the Comédie Française, and who had composed the music for the last Stratford production of Henry V in 1964. Woolfenden's new score uses live musicians, who play from the galleries that flank the stage.
Finally, there was Alan Howard, as Henry (and Hal in Henry IV). Like Terry Hands, he joined the RSC in 1966, and has done his major work with that company since. Henry V was his fifth production with Terry Hands, and in many ways as director and actor they match one another very well. There is a daring and flamboyance in Howard's acting which can ignite on-stage when he is working with a director similarly willing to abandon the cautious and the safe. He is not an actor who is, as Kenneth Tynan once wrote savagely of Gielgud, great "from the neck up." There is a physicality in all his work, a vigor and energy of mind, voice, and body, that has always tended to frighten English critics. They could take his Lussurioso, for instance, supple, lechery in every angle of his body, in Trevor Nunn's 1966 production of The Revenger's Tragedy. But his extraordinary Achilles, unequivocally bisexual, both spoiled child and epic warrior, in John Barton's production of Troilus and Cressida in 1968, upset them dreadfully. Howard has shown faults - reliance on vocal power and mannerisms, for instance - but even when they were pruned from his work, the critics hung back: they admired, but they felt queasy.
Terry Hands was insistent that he he did not want to impose a shape on the production; he wanted it to emerge in rehearsal from the group of people he gathered together to form his company. And that is one of the production's great strengths. The company is a small one. At Stratford in 1964, the cast numbered nearly 50 - many of them spear-carrying walk-ons. Now the cast numbers 25; there is some doubling, and some of the French nobles who appear briefly have been condensed into one character - that of Montjoy, the French herald - in one of the rare instances of tampering with the text, which is, unusually, played with few cuts. But, most important, there are no extras. The English army numbers twelve to sixteen characters who speak. And, because each of them is clearly defined, from the wild Irish Captain Macmorris (Barrie Rutter) to the skeptical Cockney Bates (Arthur Whybrow), who wishes himself "in Thames up to the neck" on the eve of battle, the soldiers become a vital, real force in the play. They have a curious timeless truth, and their individuality, their strength as a group, is what helps to shift the text of the play from the traditional concept of it.
Terry Hands's decision to limit the cast in this way stemmed from his feeling, which became central to the production, that "the dictionary for the play was specifically provided by the words of the Chorus." The Chorus (played by Emrys James) begins the play with an apology and a promise: an apology for the fact that we are in a theater, that nothing is real; we, the audience, can convert approximation into real experience. The Chorus asks for collaboration from the audience; Terry Hands wanted "to strip away all the theatrical illusions that encourage audiences to be too lazy to collaborate, to imagine." So: no extras desperately pretending to look like an army of thousands; so set, as such; and, at the beginning of the play, no costumes - just a bare stage, and actors in rehearsal clothes.
Farrah's stage became a palpable force behind this concept. A black platform, bare of adornment, jutting out into the audience with , as he said, "all the working trimmings of a stage clearly visible" - the lamps, the bridges, the wires that support the great canopies that fly over the stage - it was no box of illusions, but a place where the mechanics of a theatrical performance were always visible, always present. It proved, as it turned out, a stumbling block for both critics and audiences. They didn't like coming into the theater to be greeted by a lot of actors on a bare platform in a motley collection of old jeans and tracksuits. The critics, confronted with this spectacle, closed their ears to the opening words of the play and then had fun at the expense of "this group of football referees" (the Times), and "Archbishops, nattily attired in White City running plimsolls" (Punch). Audiences were noticeably restive, and a company director, who had purchased tickets for the gala performance at Stratford to be attended by the queen, wrote to ask if it were true that the company intended to play "in boiler suits and similar garb with Royalty present," and that if so, he would cancel his tickets. Once the costumes were put on, and the canopies were unfurled, everyone was happy. But the resistance to the reminder that theater is not instant magic but a two-way process, making demands both on actors and on audience, was interesting.
What the austerity of the staging did, of course, was to throw up, in fierce relief, the themes of the play itself. In the past, it became clear as one reads accounts of old productions, the play was either laden with spectacle or else the text was ruthlessly tinkered with, until the play conformed to a useful patriotic panegyric. Until this century it was customary to play a truncated version of the text, often with the Chorus completely cut, or else dolled up in some peculiar guise (Clio, the Muse of History, was a favorite), and, with the time thus gained, to lavish the stage with Cecil B. De Mille interludes miming the battle of Agincourt, complete with battering rams and cardboard castles, and interspersing Shakespeare's text with ballets and processions. The play was mounted with great frequency in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, because England's hostility to France provided a perfect occasion to perform a play that seemed, on the surface, to be about the English trouncing the French. It was used for a similar purpose by Laurence Olivier when he made his film of the play, with government funds, in 1944. That film, made at a time when the British needed to bolster their national confidence, has been for two generations the version of the play.
The energy and charm of the film are undeniable: who can forget the transition from actors at the Globe playhouse to the naturalistic fluency of film, or the glories of the battle of Agincourt? But anyone who bothers to compare the film with Shakespeare's text can see at what cost that was achieved. Shakespeare deliberately avoids presenting the battle that the film dwells on so profusely; yet other scenes - the traitors at Southampton, the four captains squabbling at Harfleur, Henry's decision to kill the French prisoners - all are evaded or cut, perhaps because they might have diluted the film's propaganda.
Free from such pressures, a very different play emerges from Terry Hands's production. It is, he says, "Shakespeare's theater play par excellence. Every aspect of role-playing is examined: the costume, the makeup, the internal performance, the external; the roles played in public, and the roles played in private." It is a play which hinges on one historical event - the battle of Agincourt - but which takes seventeen scenes to reach that battle, and then represents it by an encounter between two clowns and a child. A play where the words of the storyteller (the Chorus) seem constantly to be at odds with the story the dramatist makes us witness. A play with an extraordinary spiritual and geographic range of characters - an English king racked with self-doubts; French noblemen glorying in war, and dying trapped in their splendid armor; a diplomat who has to communicate between the two sides; a Welsh reactionary of great charm; ordinary soldiers worrying about their widows once they die; parasitical layabouts, off to war for the pickings - yet curiously loyal to each other; women, on the periphery of the action, yet ultimately determining its resolution. A play where the division of language - between French and English, Welsh and Irish, men and women, upper class and lower, soldier and courtier - emphasizes the divide between people. A play where the characters are at odds with each other, because they are at odds with themselves.
Terry Hands rehearsed the play in a very free way. There was no 'blocking' of moves, for instance, until the final week of rehearsals. The 'English army,' which he, Farrah and Guy Woolfenden all wanted to have the feel of a small expeditionary force, intent first on survival, improvised the circumstances of their camp. The rehearsal rooms were piled with heaps of towels, tents, baggage, and cooking utensils, and every day the actors built a camp, decided where they would sleep, and kitted themselves up. The breach sequence was rehearsed like a rugby game: the actors formed a huddle, and then, as Trevor Peacock (who plays Fluellen) says, "when we were all panting and sweaty and angry and steaming with heat, Terry Hands would yell, 'Break!', and we'd break and go into the next scene. By that time we were flat out, practically finished, and so it really took something big in the next speech to get us up on our feet again, and over the wall........"
Maybe those rehearsal methods contributed to the vigor of the performance - one cannot tell. What is certain is that the force of the production seems to emanate from the combined energies of a whole company. There are some marvelous performances in peripheral roles, and some disappointing ones, but that is not really the point. The idea of ensemble theater is one that has taken quite a lot of knocking about recently in the major English companies - largely because Peter Hall at the National seems to think it impracticable - and the RSC has virtually stopped practicing it. The Henry V showed how forceful a company could be, working together over a long season and mounting a production whose inventions and innovations stem from 30 minds bent to one purpose.
Henry V is a play best seen, without question, in the context of the trilogy of plays it completes. Unfortunately, at Brroklyn in April, that won't be possible. But it will be interesting to see how American audiences respond to this company's work. Because of Vietnam, they perhaps begin nearer than English audiences do to the heart of the matter.
New York, 26.4.1976.