Howard's snarling Hal dominates strong cast

There is no need for Emrys James's Chorus to apologise so courteously for the inadequacy of the Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of Henry V. Filling the Aldwych with the fury of ringing words and the tumult of war, the production may fairly claim to "ascend the brightest heaven of invention."

The director, Terry Hands, does indulge himself with a trick opening. As we enter the theatre the curtain is up and the actors wave to us from the stage. They begin Shakespeare's play in mufti, as if in rehearsal, wearing their usual slops, their spectacles, gym shoes.

But suddenly, a huge bundle descends from above and blossoms into a thousand flags, while a giant cannon hurtles on a wagon below. From it, the King triumphantly urges his subjects to war with France.

I am weary of such tricks, but this one is certainly thrilling. So, throughout, are Farrah's designs.

From then on, the staging is simple, with vivid contrast between the true-hearted yeomen whose limbs were made in England, and the paltry and unfunny hangers-on from Eastcheap, Hal's erstwhile companions.

With splendid topicality, the battlefield quarrels between Scots, Irish, Welsh and English, are put over with a warm-hearted pugnacity which might shame some living disputants.

Vividly contrasted too are Henry's rough-hewn army and the vain carpet-knights among the over-lusty French, composing sonnets to their horses and cracking up when it comes to the test.

Trevor Peacock's Fluellen, Maureen Pryor's Mistress Quickly, Clement McCallin's Charles VI and Peter Bourke's Boy are notable in a strong cast.

Dominating all is Alan Howard's golden-haired but far from golden-toned King. His nasal snarl might well cause the gates of Harfleur to cringe and fall like the walls of Jericho.

Yet the vocal rasp is of a piece with his nervous rages, his passionately doubtful prayers to God and the tearful and near-neurotic outbreaks whenever anything goes particularly well - or ill.

This provocative interpretation brings to a logical climax the character he created in the two preceding plays: restless, easily bored, racked by conscience and yet emotionally possessed by his personal divinity.

Playgoers would do well, when the other Henry plays join the season next week, to see them in order. Alan Howard has done nothing finer.

John Barber

Daily Telegraph, 21.1.1976.

Playing Shakespeare/Henry V