“Henry V” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Saturday 28th July 2012

Two years ago, following the superb Henry IVs Parts 1 and 2, I begged “for Jamie Parker as Henry V at some point in the near future”. Well, my prayers were answered (yes, I like to think this was all down to me) and I wasn’t wrong; in Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Henry V at the Globe, Parker gives a wonderful performance as the charismatic king. Unfortunately, however, the production is let down by a less than impressive ensemble and rather indulgent direction.

I don’t understand how it has become normal at the Globe to have strong central performances and weak supporting actors. Granted, it’s a hard space to master, but the likes of Parker, Rylance, Allam and Best prove it’s not impossible. Why, then, do shows consistently cast actors who feel it necessary to gesticulate wildly and lose all trace of awareness of the space? It’s all well and good to do straight-laced productions of Shakespeare, but the least we expect from that is a strong cast.

One of the worst perpetrators of this in Henry V is Sam Cox, who plays Pistol as a cross between Russell Kane and Jack Sparrow but who is let down by supreme self-awareness and seems to be working by the mantra ‘do anything, as long as it gets a laugh’. Brid Brennan’s Chorus is equally uninspiring, and speaks the lines with such anger and wide-eyed menace that it’s difficult to take her seriously; there is little chance we will imagine the scenes she asks us to with such bizarre delivery. When Olivia Ross speaks her lines as the young boy, her hands seem to be imitating an air traffic controller, though she is redeemed by her sweet portrayal of Katherine.

Nigel Cooke’s Exeter injects some charisma into proceedings and Brendan O’Hea’s Fluellen is – most of the time – hilarious. But no one even comes close to matching Parker’s affable, strong-willed, knowing Harry. He walks around the stage with such ease and converses with the audience in such laid-back tones that we really do feel part of his army. “Once more unto the breach” is delivered with searing energy and when he looks you square in the eye and says “We happy few”, it’s explicit that you’re on his side. It’s only a shame he didn’t get to play the king in the same season as Hal; I suspect his performance would be even richer in a shorter timeframe.

Jonathan Fensom’s set is a disintegrated version of the Henry IV design, and the squabbles between the nations of Britain here are brought to the forefront, showing a kingdom on the edge of collapse (with so much talk of “Britain” at the moment this play comes across as supremely English). The stylised fight scenes are also a nice addition, though more enthusiasm from certain members of the cast at these points wouldn’t go amiss.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about this production, especially considering so many aspects are taken from the previous Henry IVs, is that it shows Henry V to be very much a play which only makes sense in the context of the histories. The Falstaff scenes are lost on much of the audience and some of the characters are paper-thin in this play without the aid of previous narratives. The fact Dromgoole doesn’t attempt to smooth over these issues is an oversight, and though Parker shines, its difficult not to think he’s driving a slightly faulty vehicle.

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