Focus on "Henry V":

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Jingoistic, Anti-Heroic, Cautionary?

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Olivier’s film
was intended “for the home front, a ‘why we fight’ rather than ‘how we fight’,”  that simultaneously invited audiences to make Shakespeare their own: “'Shakespeare had been given to the people. He was no longer for a small band of the select.’”  Shakespeare, Olivier, Henry V, and George VI were in this together, uniting their strengths to lead the people of Britain through the hardships of war towards a much hoped-for victory. Branagh’s film conveys the sense that the King was aware of the sacrifice he was imposing on his soldiers but bound by duty to proceed nonetheless, and the closing atmosphere was ultimately celebratory, albeit in a subdued mood. While views of the white cliffs of Dover invited a patriotic throb, “the emphasis was on the grimness of war and any comic relief was understated.” 

As Jean-Marie Maguin noted in his review of Adrian Noble’s 1984 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), in which Branagh played Henry: “It does not take all that much to shake the heroics down and show that both the play and its title role go further than or away from an apology of conquest and conqueror.”  In her study of Bogdanov’s 1986 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, Laurie Maguire observes that more than any other play, Henry V “lends itself to unsentimental late-twentieth-century views of heroes and heroics.” The success of Branagh’s film has tended to eclipse Bogdanov’s modern-dress stage production, which opted for satire rather than celebration, polemics rather than consensus. Setting the play in Thatcher’s Britain, Bogdanov looked back at Shakespeare’s (and Olivier’s) Henry and his French campaign through the prism of the Falklands War and the nationalistic posturing it encouraged in both the British and Argentinian camps. An editorial in the Guardian summed up the war as a fight to defend islands with “3,000 people, 500,000 sheep and a claim that does not come out particularly well from historical scrutiny,” and Jorge Luis Borges described it as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”  

Similarly, Nicholas Hytner opted in 2003 for an anti-heroic, modern-dress staging that carried “highly contemporary and grim resonance” in the context of Britain’s military presence in Afghanistan following 9/11 and the launch of action in Iraq.  Staged as Henry invading Iraq on the basis of a sexed-up dossier, with the opening scene between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely inviting an obvious analogy with Tony Blair and George Bush’s attempts to justify the second war against Iraq, Hytner’s production coincided with investigations by the British Ministry into allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war.  The time, indeed, was ripe for this production.

Edward Hall’s multiple engagements with the play, from 1999 to 2012, did not seek to elude the dirty side of violence. In 1999, he drew attention to the dehumanizing effect of institutionalized violence by physically dissociating assailants and their victims: Battle scenes were performed with actors beating punching bags with baseball bats upstage “while victims mimed the impact of the blows downstage.”  In 2012, the Chorus was performed by “physically and mentally exhausted [soldiers], their uniforms sullied;” the choice of modern dress invited connections with soldiers struggling to readjust after “Britain’s latest military (mis)adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.”  The Eastcheap tavern became a pub where crassly nationalistic patrons sported England football and rugby shirts, and behaved the way some fans do, particularly when abroad, as drunk, belligerent, xenophobic and sexist yobs. Where Bogdanov had Exeter walk over the cloth on which the French ladies sat picnicking and drinking champagne, Hall’s “soldiers [were] given license to leer at Katherine … Henry, too, seemed to succumb in Act V Scene 2 to the pervasive belief that foreigners will understand English if only it is spoken sufficiently loudly.”  Elizabeth Freestone’s 2018 production was equally counter-heroic: “Mired in booze, vomit, corruption and self-interest, this was no heroic or romanticised view of the English court.”  Michael Boyd chose to contrast the brilliance of the French court with the repulsive drabness of the English invaders, which made it difficult for the audience to side with the latter: “Where the French court is a sumptuous, airy aviary, the English are a pack of rodents, in browns, greys and blacks, scurrying about the stage and climbing up from the darkness underground. They seem more to infest France than invade it.”  

Breath of Kings – Rebellion and Redemption, the two-part histories cycle Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman staged in Stratford, Ontario, in 2016, featured a set that recalled the trench warfare of World War One and its death toll, with flagstones which, when removed, created graves, or “became rubble and provided two trenches for the opposing armies.”  One way of denting the nationalistic discourse is to make the two camps seem interchangeable, or to show up the risks of opportunistic claims. In the opening scene of Henry V, which Bogdanov designed in sequence with the two Henry IV plays: “the Bishop of Ely reminded the Archbishop of Canterbury that Henry’s claim to France was dangerously similar to Mortimer’s claim to the English throne.”  Freestone opted for “costumes [that] were modern military for the most part with soldiers donning waistcoats with fleur-de-lis to signify a transformation between allied and enemy forces but, as this sudden metamorphosis suggested, there was very little to choose between common soldiers on either side.”  Des McAnuff’s choice of props visually debunked all rhetorical attempts at heroism: “the use of sawhorses undercut authority in both camps, contrasting with the French lords’ comments on the beauty of their mounts.”  This satirical approach heightened the impact of other moments, such as the killing of the traitors onstage, Henry putting the noose around Bardolph’s neck, and his unemotional order to kill the prisoners.The prisoners were also killed on stage in Matthew Warchus’s and Hytner’s productions for the RSC, in 1994 and 2003 respectively. Mills effectively reversed Beerbohm’s cricket metaphor: “Cricket stumps became swords … the force of the sporting metaphor, the superimposition of playground and battleground, brought home most forcefully that these soldiers were children.”  At the end of the play, Chorus, the elderly headmaster, “removed from his inside pocket a list of boys missing, presumed killed in action.”  

Some directors have chosen to enrich their approach through settings that play on different periods:


Warchus investigated the play as a series of overlays of history. Its opening and closing image, with Henry’s red regal gown with a gold collar placed on a dummy, roped off like an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum, established a sense of royal myth surrounded by tall red poppies, the strongest modern symbol of the cost of war. 
This staging also invited the audience to connect past and present:

Henry’s court was set within a roped off playing space between chrome waist-high pillars and hooked ropes like those one queues behind in banks or stations. Within the ropes the world was medieval while outside journalists flashed cameras and jostled for photos of the new king. 

Jeannette Lambermont’s diachronic perspective combined World War One costumes, modern communication devices, longbows, and the use of the “timeless technology of the knife” to cut French prisoners’ throats.  The play was dramatically framed by a project to make a television film, with the character of the Boy serving as documentary filmmaker. Barbara Gaines brought into Henry V elements from the rest of the historical cycle she produced for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to drive home the cyclical and destructive nature of war:

Dead kings reappeared … on the scaffolding placed at the back of the bare floor-boarded stage, haunting the actions of their descendants. … [Edward III] reappeared above the battlements of Harfleur, where Henry V’s threats to the besieged citizens were interspersed with those of Edward to the burghers of Calais. 

Other productions have deliberately refrained from seeking contemporary resonances. Barry Rutter’s 2003 production for Northern Broadsides chose to heroize Henry in a conventional us-versus-them mode: “On the one hand, the slaughter of the French prisoners took place offstage. On the other, Fluellen entered bearing in his arms the corpse of one of the luggage boys: English violence was toned down, while French brutality was demonstrated for us.”  Similarly, J. R. Sullivan’s production for the Utah Shakespeare Festival was “basically a straightforward patriotic production,” as was Paul Mullins’s for the Santa Cruz Festival, California, in 2013.  The play was performed in the open-air redwood forest setting of the Festival Glen: “During the ‘little touch of Harry in the night’ scene, at the beginning of Act 4, a real fire flickers in the trap, as soldiers huddle to its warmth, mirroring an audience huddling, too, in the evening chill, both waiting for the real Harry to warm us with his presence.” 

Indications of the play’s mood and what the audience is invited to take home are also discernible in the staging of the scenes with Katherine within the overall narrative. In Noble’s 1984 production, the English lesson took place “with the battle smog of the previous scene still hanging about – an interesting and very successful enchaînement.”  Hytner showed Katharine and Alice trying to learn English by reading the French subtitles as they watched “Henry’s televised broadcast from Harfleur … she needed to learn the language of the occupying force and of her likely future husband.”  Bogdanov’s wooing scene was anything but idyllic: a cannon-shot anticipated the civil wars of the Henry VI plays.  As Shakespeare’s Chorus tells us at the very end, even though he’s been trying to hedge, wars beget further losses and more bleeding.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, directors have continued to probe issues of national identity. McAnuff’s use of flags – St George’s Cross, fleur-de-lis and Maple Leaf – seemed to invite his mostly Canadian audience to reflect upon notions of unity and multiple identity, as citizens of “a nation which is still coming to terms with its French-English colonial background” (Coen, 143). In Britain, the play’s areas of discomfort are in themselves an area of investigation. Inviting audiences to look beyond the military-political setting to the complexities of collective behavior, Mills’s production “sought to demonstrate the easy transmutation of grammar-school rivalry into murderous determination – cricket into killing” – moving from the grimness of adult wars to the “brutality of Lord of the Flies.”  

Just as choosing to have the traitors killed on or off stage can shift the reading of the play, editing just one line can make all the difference. Decisions to cut Henry’s call to kill all the prisoners (as Olivier and Branagh did) or to move it, for instance after the death of the Boy(s), tone down the play’s – and Henry’s – more ruthless moments. Conversely, reintroducing the line, as Richard Olivier did for the all-male, period-clothing production that opened the Globe in 1997, restores some of the complexity of Henry’s character, and is apt to jolt the audience into unease. It “left many in the audience visibly at a loss” in a production that seemed to go along with the received image of the king (Mark Rylance) as a charismatic leader, whose initial confidence was progressively eroded by doubt.  

In Hall’s 2012 production, “the experience and psychology of warfare was presented primarily from the perspective of the troops, in a ‘bottom up’ historiographical approach seemingly at odds with the ‘top down’ narrative implied by the play’s title.”  Hytner’s soldiers registered horror when Henry ordered them to kill the French prisoners. 

In contrast with Hytner’s and Hall’s productions, which were staged the same year, Dominic Dromgoole’s Henry V, which closed the multicultural Globe to Globe Shakespeare Olympiad Festival, was an unabashed statement of national pride. This celebratory paean recalled that the Globe had opened with the same play twenty-five years earlier, and matched the “Englishness” of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, in which Kenneth Branagh had played a Victorian Master of Ceremonies to the world.

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