Many of the pleasures of seeing a complete Henriad are expected. We witness the full transformation of the bawdy Prince Hal (Alex Hassell), in whom his father once saw “riot and dishonour stain the brow,” into King Henry V, capable of such rousing rhetoric as the St. Crispian’s Day Speech. We watch old Jack Falstaff, the endlessly charismatic Lord of Misrule, begin as father figure to the future monarch and end as an anachronism, dying offstage in what Marjorie Garber calls one of Shakespeare’s “unscenes.” There are minor moments, too, that are underlined by context. The death of of Bardolph (Joshua Richards), thief and member of Falstaff’s entourage, has little effect in a stand-alone Henry V; preceded by Henry IV, it accentuates Henry’s own embrace of law and order and his melancholy parting with such creaturely pleasures as a “small beer.”
But there are also pleasures that are unique to this production by the RSC. Take, for example, the casting of Bardolph. Mr. Richards, wearing a sleeping cap and a nose as swollen and bulbous as a mutant pepper, casts such a distinctive mien we might not realize that he reappears as the comic Welshman Fluellen, the very man who announces that Bardolph is “like to be executed for robbing a church.” Thus director Gregory Doran suggests both a cyclicality and a disposability of clowns in a world now emphatically ruled by kings. More powerful, however, is the reappearance of Jasper Britton. In Henry IV, he played the eponymous monarch, whose disappointment and low expectations proved Hal’s largest obstacle. In Henry V, he plays the King of France. While dying, Henry IV advised Hal to “busy giddy minds / with foreign quarrels,” thus turning internal wars into external ones. Now, that very advice is personified by Mr. Britton, the foreign king that Henry V will battle near Agincourt.
Coming full circle, then, from the cerebral Richard II, Henry V deals more with action and less with abstract notions of honor and kingship. The chorus (Oliver Ford Davies) often watches from the sidelines before assuming center stage to narrate political developments; he asks us to supplement the mimetic shortcomings of the medium by “piec[ing] out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Indeed, the battle scenes here are staged with a knowledge that wars are as much about rhetoric as they are about strategy and might. After crying out the famous (and often propagandistically misappropriated), “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” Henry runs offstage, pauses, and then returns to wave us the audience forward, as if he has realized that stirring speech alone does not translate into successful action. After all, the battle, though victorious, holds some dramatic irony, since Henry’s son would soon lose the gains won by his father.
I find myself writing this on the weekend of the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I can think of no better way to do justice to the memory of the man than such a robust, intelligent, and blockbuster production, one that I will treasure in my memory for years to come.