Uneasy lies the head

The season at Stratford-upon-Avon, which is to give us all the Falstaff plays, opened incongruously with Henry V. This made it clear that the interpretative link would not be the education for kingship of Prince Hal, shown in three instalments. The approach will be psychological rather than historical: an examination of rôle-playing.

Chorus (Emrys James, in his Brecht tunic) apologised for "this unworthy scaffold" - a bare stage, though not a "wooden O," with galleries on either side - surrounded by the cast, sitting on the floor in their working clothes. Not a chair or prop in sight - the gentlemen from the Arts Council must have blenched in contrition. The Bishops were in track-suits; the King stepped forward and turned out to be the tousle-haired, bespectacled Alan Howard, wearing plimsolls. Excitement mounted. Were we really going to have to exercise our imaginations, as the author intended?

Well, not quite. As soon as the story got into its stride, the actors assumed costumes, some in glittering gold, on which Farrah had lavished his powerful and extravagant talent. The effect was not unlike that of the Noh Theatre. There was also an intricately-operated, billowing canopy which, when lowered, transformed itself into a mountain range of soldiers' tents.

Henry V

This device, like the steep incline covered in nets, had been borrowed quite legitimately from Victor Garcia's unforgotten production of "Yerma." The men from the Council could breathe again and ponder on further cuts in subsidies.

If it was indeed enforced economy that curbed Terry Hands's flair for opulence, then we must record that he answered the challenge magnificently. But for one serious lapse of taste - a battle-scene sound track, with neighing horses, whizzing arrows, and cries of pain, that might have been taken from the film version - this was the clearest exposition of the play that I have ever seen.

Alan Howard explored, with intelligence and passion, the assumption of various identities demanded of the King, returning every so often to an intense and lonely self-communion. Here was an actor playing a man playing a King: an exercise in introspection far removed from the usual recruiting poster. The welding of disparate elements (human) into a machine of war - fortuitously the same subject as that of the film "The Way Ahead" screened last Sunday on television - was given emphasis by incisive playing. Mr. Hands must be congratulated on returning from his own conquest of France with a captive from the Comédie Française in the person of Ludmila Mikaël. her Katherine sparkled with calculated wit: no simpering au pair, this one.

Frank Marcus

Sunday Telegraph, 13.4.75.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry V