Review: Henry V

Henry V, performed by Edward’s Boys, 16-18 March 2013, The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Big School and Levi Fox Hall, K.E.S.

Boys’ companies were all the rage in late Elizabethan England. The so-called War of the Theatres from 1599-1601 saw the Children of the Chapel pitching their Ben Jonson plays against the Children of Paul’s, armed with John Marston and Thomas Dekker, probably to the mutual economic benefit of the industry. The theatrical news the players bring to Elsinore in Hamlet, written and performed during this period, is of ‘an eyrie of children, little eyases’ that ‘are now the fashion’: ‘there has been much to-do on all sides’ (2.2). Plays by Marston, and other boys’ company authors including Thomas Middleton and John Lyly, have previously featured in the Edward’s Boys repertoire. The company has established itself with scholars as the foremost interpreter and leading authority on these plays – and more importantly, with audiences as the purveyor of highly entertaining, lucid and well-placed theatre. To put it bluntly, though, Edward’s Boys has majored in the lost plays of the period, putting them on their dramatic feet and making them so fresh and modern-seeming that their neglect seems inexplicable, but perhaps also benefitting from the fact that they are not in competition with memories of RSC or Hollywood productions. This year’s production of Henry V built on the company’s firm foundations, then, but also marked a brave departure. Henry V is a play we’ve all seen before – be it Olivier in armour on a white horse at Agincourt, the Iraq-war inspired production at the National Theatre with Adrian Lester, or the muddied and youthful Kenneth Branagh. How would schoolboys occupy this play written for an adult cast and already resonant with stage history? As a long-term fan of Edward’s Boys, I entered the Swan Theatre for Henry V with some trepidation, worried that the spell might be broken and this performance would be marked by the haunting memory of what it was not.

I needn’t have worried. The performance by boys brought out the poignancy of the play and of its subsequent history. It traversed the play’s line between jingoism and pathos with great delicacy, simultaneously evoking three different time periods: a version of the medieval era of the historical Agincourt, a recollection of the K.E.S. production of 1913, and the modern world of today’s school. Eclectic costuming included knitted baggy chain mail armour, combat fatigues, and contemporary sports kit, emphasizing the continuities as well as the differences over more than five centuries. Ely (Henry Edwards) attempted frantically to convey the complexities of Salic law on a blackboard; the soldiers were summoned with a sharp blast on a PE whistle; the school bell was used to indicate scene changes. These soldiers were boys, now and then, just as the Jennings brothers and the other members of the 1913 cast were, just, probably, as Henry’s own army were. Perry Mills’ great understanding in all his productions has been, I think, that the boy actors are never (and should never be) completely erased by their performed roles, and that their company dynamic is located in the self-conscious and shifting interplay of boy and character.

Only the Chorus (Tim Pigott-Smith), played as a reflective headmaster, had the benefit and the burden of maturity. He sat behind a desk watching for most of the performance as the boys occupied a space around him that was at once classroom and battlefield, wielding rulers and cricket bats in skirmishes that toggled uneasily between sport and deadly earnest. The desk, and its associate authority, were variously usurped: by a cheeky-chappy Boy (Charlie Waters) who sat at it daringly with his feet on the desk and by Henry who stood on it to deliver his rousing speech at the siege of Harfleur. The Chorus has sometimes been called Henry’s spin-doctor: here he was the fondly distant paternalistic figure who finds his initial complacent belief in the nobility of war challenged by the unfolding events. He watches Henry’s agonized prayer before Agincourt with impotent pity, and the production’s final moment sees the young Henry stop and look into his schoolmaster’s griefstricken face, disappearing like a memory as the teacher returns with a sigh to marking homework.

As ever in Edward’s Boys productions, the balance of emotion was perfectly handled. The whistling of WW1 standards such as ‘Tipperary’, and the voices of the schoolboys in patriotic hymns such as ‘To be a Pilgrim’ were deeply moving. But excellent comic timing prevented any lingering sentimentality, and here, performances by Jack Fenwick as a wonderfully aggressive and louche Pistol, by Elliot Tawney as a Scouse Nym, and a brilliantly sustained Welsh accent by George Matts as Fluellen, stood out. Behind the laughter is a threat of violence: the rugby lads who humiliate Pistol with the leek are bullies hardened by warfare, and this production understood Shakespeare’s focus in a play that never depicts its central battle, but rather defers it into scuffles within the English army. Henry (Jeremy Franklin) had his own coldness: sentencing Bardolph to death and chopping logic with the soldiers before the battle were here an index of his own youthful fundamentalism. Women’s parts were played with great nuance: Barnaby Bos as Alice held his handbag defensively as if to ward off Henry’s ardent wooing, and Katherine (George Hodson) was able to animate, with some modern touches, the bawdy comedy of the French lesson scene.

Often modern productions of Henry V seem to be star vehicles for a single actor, belying the play’s own rhetoric of the ‘band of brothers’. But here a strong performance in the central role was absorbed into a real ensemble affair. The sequence in which the wearied soldiers clutch their exhausted king, ‘royal captain of this ruined band’, accompanied by the drained beat of their marching footsteps, made brilliant, heart-rending use of the space of the Swan stage. It had its counterpart in the final scene, an echo of the school’s annual Birthday pilgrimage to Holy Trinity Church. The whole company, dressed in school uniforms, processed to lay flowers on Henry’s coffin: a reminder of the production’s own role in memorializing the school’s own ongoing history. It was triumphant without ever being triumphalist: a production that managed at once to respect and to question militarism, and to keep us implicated in two troublingly intersecting narratives: boys performing a play and boys fighting a war. Bravo to all, especially those actors not mentioned by name here – and book now for Dido, Queen of Carthage.

 

Professor Emma Smith
Hertford College, Oxford