Wednesday, 21 October 2015

A little touch of Harry in the night…

Henry V – the play; the man – seems to have taken over my life, recently. First, the stunning production currently running at the RSC – which I saw for a second time on Saturday afternoon (and which will be live in cinemas, later today). Then, Janina Ramirez’ insightful documentary series on Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years’ War, currently on BBC Four – the second part of which deals with Harfleur and Agincourt, etc.. Immersing myself in Laurence Olivier’s wonderful 1944 film (on DVD) – and now that movie’s majestic music (along with some hefty chunks of Shakespeare’s most magical poetry) at Stratford ArtsHouse, last night, courtesy of the remarkable David Curtis and the wonderful Orchestra of the Swan. (Not only do we have one of the best theatre companies in the country – if not the world – but one of the best music ensembles, too!)

Before I get on to the concert itself, I have to say that I found the repeated viewing at the RSC a much more fluid and fluent affair – and Alex Hassell’s performance was more human, more humane, more heroic. (It helped, I think, that the audience were more receptive, more involved….) His immensely physical, breathless rendition of “Once more unto the breach” will certainly stay with me – if only for his potent embodiment of “the action of the tiger” – visibly growing on an empty stage; roaring, rallying on his audience of troops:

Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favor’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height.

By the end of this, I was quite ready to grab my sword – well, walking stick… – and go charging forward with him!

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot!
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

I was reminded of this involving call-to-arms, last night, by the wonderful, engaging, embracing narration of James Phelips: who gave his all as both Harry and Chorus during William Walton’s Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario (using words and music from the film). Olivier declared that “William knocked out the most fantastic score”; and this skilful arrangement for chamber ensemble (by Eric Watson) – minus the Swan’s core string section – was proof that the music is not only integral to the action, but describes it perfectly – as Longfellow said: “the universal language of mankind”. (We may have been asked to “eche out [their] performance with [our] mind” both by the Chorus and by conductor David Curtis, before the concert – but with playing this accomplished, it really wasn’t that difficult….)

How twelve skilful musicians can make so much warlike sound is almost beyond me – developing from the soft, moving, tearful Death of Falstaff (also performed before the interval in its more famous string arrangement – by Walton himself – again demonstrating the purity and strength of a small ensemble) to the riotous, clashing, percussion-pummelling battle-scene at Agincourt. You could feel the French hooves pounding through the rain-soddened soil; sense the archers’ unforgiving curtain of arrows “That did affright the air…”.

And, yes, “this cockpit” was indeed a “wooden O” – such great acoustics for this “happy few…”.

In the first half, we were also treated (definitely the right word) to a beautiful selection of Vaughan Williams – the gentle Dives and Lazarus, and his better-known Fantasia on Greensleeves (another Falstaff connection, of course) – as well as Walton’s challenging “one-man opera” Anon in Love (arranged for voice and strings), sung perfectly and beautifully by tenor James Atherton: whose high notes have a rare, round, piercing purity. This music was made for him.

[As I write this, Laurence Olivier’s rendition of “This day is call’d the feast of Crispian” is playing in my ears – reminding me of nothing so much as Dylan Thomas reading his own work (“Old men forget…”). The passion, the poetry, the musicality, the emotion, the transition from conversation to plea, the full boasting, the confidence in man and God, the clarity: there is nothing better crafted in and from the English language… – “From this day to the ending of the world…”.]

Of course, the 600-year anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt itself isn’t until Sunday (including some good workshops on at the RSC – as well as the last local performance of the play). And, although I find it difficult to celebrate an event that was undoubtedly horrific for those involved (which Olivier on film conveys more readily than a staged production can), one must be grateful for the inspiration it provided: both in words and music. “Amen!”

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