A century ago, the signing of the Armistice in a railway carriage in a forest north of Paris signaled the end of World War One. Retrospectively, the conditions imposed on defeated Germany were perceived as the beginning of the countdown to World War Two. This in turn was followed by a twofold process of decolonization and growing convergence among European nations that insidiously eroded a sense of national confidence in a country like Britain. Self-doubt, exploited by politicians, crystallized in the majority vote in favor of leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum that launched the messy and collectively damaging Brexit process, which would have supposedly ensure Britain's exit from the European Union by 2019.
A play like Henry V offers opportunities to trace the extent to which directors have chosen to endorse or critique official military and political rhetoric, or refrained from forcing the play into an either/or frame. Even when the setting and directorial line are designed to bring the audience closer to Shakespeare’s period, stagings reflect or probe in varying degrees the context of shifting social attitudes to war and national identity of the country in which they are being produced. At the farther end of the arc, we have Frank Benson, whose early twentieth century Henry V is said to have been unflatteringly dismissed as “a branch of university cricket” by Max Beerbohm. Unsurprisingly, Benson’s staging of the play in the winter of 1914-15 took an openly patriotic stance, including quotations from Shakespeare and King George V. In 1913 he produced the play for pupils of King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon: “seven of the boys in the cast [went off to battle and] were killed between 1914 and 1918.” A century later, Perry Mills revisited Benson’s vision of the play as a game of cricket in Edward’s Boys, while directors Barbara Gaines and Elizabeth Freestone unpacked the play’s masculine world for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Bristol Tobacco Factory, respectively. Landmarks along the way include Laurence Olivier’s wartime film, in 1944, and Kenneth Branagh’s in 1989, which was released just before the outbreak of the first war in Iraq. Both have, directly or indirectly, inspired theatre directors and received ample critical attention.
This essay offers a brief overview of the past three decades of theatre productions, focusing on Britain, with side-glances at American and Canadian productions. It takes Michael Bogdanov’s 1986 production as its starting point: in part a response to another British military involvement – Margaret Thatcher’s conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands – it marked a break with the Benson-Olivier legacy of the play as a rallying-cry. This essay discusses the productions through a number of aspects: attitudes to national and military rhetoric; the casting of Henry; the role of the Chorus; and gender issues.