“Must I bite?”
Marking the final entry in the Globe to Globe festival is the UK with this production of Henry V which reunites Jamie Parker with the role of Prince Hal that he played in 2010’s Henry IV Part I and II. The boy has now become king and the play covers his attempt to reconquer the English gains in France, most notably at the battle of Agincourt, and his growth into a leader who can inspire men to follow their duty to their country. Parker clearly has a close affinity to this character and it was a clever move to wait a couple of years before taking on this particular part as he is able to bring even more clear-spoken gravitas, colour and detail to this very human king.
Around him though, is a production by Dominic Dromgoole which errs very strongly towards the broadest crowd-pleasing comedy it can manage. Bríd Brennan’s beautifully versed Chorus and Olivia Ross’ poised Princess Katherine impressed as did the multi-part antics of Chris Starkie and Beruce Khan (additionally stepping in as understudy for an indisposed Matthew Flynn). But too often, the overreliance on the comic tone just fell flat for me. The Pistol, Bardolph et al antics were as bawdy as they have ever been, which ended up undermining their darker side (is the treatment of the French soldier really a subject of comedy?) and the tragedy of their fates (Boy is particularly hard done by).
My viewpoint was definitely coloured by the previous two productions of the play that I have seen this year, from Propeller and Theatre Delicatessen, both of whom relocated the play to a more modern timeframe but crucially, took a much more sombre view on the writing. This is a play about war after all, about the potential consequences of following one’s patriotic duty which can swing one way or the other, and in the final analysis it is clear that Dromgoole is not interested in this. The tragic notes are kept as brief as possible, there’s little time allowed for poignant reflection (usually at the expense of bawdy comedy) and in a rather surprising move, he has cut the epilogue.
This clearly allows for the smooth transition from an upbeat ending into a jaunty jig with the intention of sending us out with a smile on the face, but by excising the cautionary note about the transient nature of this peace and imposing an almost Hollywood-style happy ending, I felt the point of the play (as I’ve come to see it, this year) had been missed. It is almost ironic given the lack of cuts elsewhere, this is a very full treatment of the text, and given the prominence of the Chorus throughout, it really did seem an odd choice to remove it from the ending (although Brennan does get the last line as Queen Isabel).
So despite an excellent lead performance from Parker, I have to say I emerged rather disappointed from the Globe. The over-weighting of the comic tone robbed the play of much of its subtlety and there is little attempt to balance this against the solemnity of the war setting, and the heavy-handed directorial intervention rankled with me as mentioned above. Obviously, this production has suffered in my opinion from following two others that I enjoyed more, but even without having seen them, I do think that this is a little too Globe-by-numbers, with little of the innovative or revelatory attention to detail that would elevate it into a classic.