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Casting of Henry

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The mood of the play owes much to the casting of Henry, to the exploration of the tensions between the heroic figure and the individual, and the extent to which he proves, or fails, to be the iconic, “beloved Head Boy of English history.”  In what Paul Prescott describes as Dromgoole’s “triumphalist production,” “Jamie Parker’s Henry … offered an idealized embodiment of Cameron and his cabinet – the apotheosis of the personable public school boy leading his country through tough times with slogans like ‘We’re all in this together’ or ‘We few, we happy few.’”  

Video Transcript

As a direct descendant of the deposed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, regality came naturally to Araya Mengesha, the first actor of color at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, to play a Shakespeare king.  In Warchus’s production, Iain Glen combined spiritual earnestness with a sense of military camaraderie: a “reluctant Christian warrior,”  he was “often seen shouldering a huge pack like his troops. He was part of a band of brothers and was respected for it.”  Religiousness is not incompatible with self-doubt, and young Jeremy Franklin, in Mills’s production, “was profoundly moving in his realization of the depth of Henry’s tortured conscience.”  

At the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Brian Vaughn played “a confident and quiet Henry V with a taste for irony.”  Branagh’s influence was perceptible in several ways. He wore the same tabard, quartered with the English lions and the French fleur-de-lis, to illustrate his claim to France. Like Olivier and Branagh, he delivered his St. Crispin’s Day speech, to soldiers’ and spectators’ applause, while standing in a baggage cart (Lester stood on a jeep in Hytner’s production). And “when the French killed the Boy, Henry kissed him, and carried him to the cart, as Branagh did.”  Anguish at the news of the killing of the boys was also conveyed in the Santa Cruz production by Charles Pasternak, who “flinches when shots ring out for the traitors, shows relief when verbal threats are enough to open Harfleur’s gates, and experiences exasperation when acceding to his old friend’s execution.”  

Henry’s rhetoric, and personality, can be pulled in different directions. Some actors, such as Dugald Bruce-Lockhart in Hall’s 2012 production, have worked against the more bombastic moments, to “develop a thoroughly morally ambiguous king, some of whose speeches were delivered as if by rote rather than as driven by passion.”  In Hytner’s production, Adrian Lester offered a nuanced reading of the role. He was ruthless on the battlefield, and “as far from Laurence Olivier’s hagiographic portrait of ‘This star of England’ … as could be imagined. … [he] pulled his pistol from its holster and shot the unarmed and bound Bardolph in the head.”  At the same time Lester cultivated his public image, interrupting the recording of his Harfleur speech, thereby “shrouding the television audience from his further brutal threats.”  

Some actors have approached the part as if the character had become a prisoner of the iconic persona, trapped in a role he no longer masters. Ben Hall’s Henry, in Elizabeth Freestone’s production, was “a king on the verge of a nervous breakdown … swigging from a bottle of whisky and loosening his tie as though preparing to throw up, then passing out. … ‘Once more unto the breach…’ … and the Crispin Day speeches sounded hollow and desperate rather than galvanizing or inspirational.”  The way he hurled his threats before Harfleur left the audience convinced that he “would have been as good (or as obscenely bad) as his word.”  

Video Transcript 

The sense of who this king is differs according to directorial choices. Some directors focus on the play and the protagonist, isolating them from the two parts of Henry IV, to the extent, for instance, of cutting the death of Falstaff (as in Hall’s 2012 production).  Others have staged the play as part of a cycle, achieving continuities and creating resonances through casting, doubling, and parallel effects. Others still have directed Henry V as a stand-alone play while signaling the broader genealogical framework in the opening and/or closing scenes, variously recalling the weight of his father’s guilt on Henry’s shoulders or undercutting the victory by embodying the Chorus’s intimations of difficulties lurking on the horizon. In the midst of victory, when seemingly most successful, Henry comes across as vulnerable or isolated. 

At the end of Hall’s 2000 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, “as the Chorus’s final speech referred to Henry’s untimely death, he simply walked out of the group-photo in which he was posed with his future queen and left the stage via the auditorium.”  Mills chose to have Henry’s coffin positioned upstage: “Henry’s ghost entered and stood downstage centre looking upstage directly at the headmaster. Seeing him, the Chorus crumpled into tears and took his glasses off to dry his tears.”  In Breath of Kings – Redemption, the audience was left with the final image of the child Henry VI, alone on stage, toying with miniature soldiers.  

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