Closing the Globe to Globe festival, which saw 38 of Shakespeare’s plays performed in as many languages (a Korean A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a signed Love’s Labour’s Lost among the 38), and opening the Globe’s own season, Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Henry V could not seemingly be more aptly timed. The history of the English victory over the French at Agincourt contains Shakespeare’s most renowned battle-eve speeches and has, in the past, been used to glorify British imperialism or re-enliven a faltering patriotism during war. Set against the bunting-strewn backdrop of the Queen’s Jubilee and the imminent prospect of the London Olympics, you’d be forgiven for thinking audiences might be left a chorus of Jerusalem away from hurling themselves into an angry pit of corgis.
However, the actuality of the text, whose nuances are drawn out by Dromgoole’s production, is one that is focused is on the depravity of war as much as on the glory of a nation; a far cry from the rallying nationalism of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version. Stirring sentiment is interrupted by the lewdly drunken exchanges between Bardolph, Nym and Sam Cox‘s Fagin-like Pistol; Archbishops strategise while taking turns on the loo with the opening Chorus “O for a muse of fire…” delivered by Brid Brennan as their toilet attendant. While on occasion the roughness of this humour jarred too strongly with scenes that might have been more sincere, it is in this crude undercurrent where the strength of the production lies; sentimentality is undercut and tempered by the bathos of the comedy.
Similarly, Jamie Parker as Henry does not allow the King’s rousing calls-to-arms to veer into jingoist territory. His Harry is one wearied and horrified by the pity of war; news of victory is not greeted with celebration but with pained relief, and tears. Audiences may recognise Parker as the young Prince Hal in Dromgoole’s 2010 productions of Henry IV (or as the one who plays the piano in The History Boys film, for those of us who didn’t make it). His older, reformed Henry still retains a slight boyishness that hints at his wilder past, yet also engenders the poignant revelation of the sacrifice of a king and of an innocence lost to war. The ruthless politician who sentences traitors to death also cries at his friends’ betrayal; while “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” is impassioned and inciting, only a quiet thread of pride is allowed to run through his delivery of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”. His courtship of Olivia Ross’ Katherine is tender in its awkwardness and characteristic of Parker’s ability to tap into the humanity of the text, that empirical humanity being the touching keynote of this exceptional production.
Shakespeare’s Henry V at The Globe Theatre runs until August 26th.