Friday, 9 October 2015

The vasty fields of France…

Alex Hassell (Henry V) – photo by Tristram Kenton/RSC

I was very tempted to entitle this review “A Welshman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a war…” – all will become clear later (which, unconvincingly, makes it look like I have a plan – which I don’t…) – but Oliver Ford Davies’ astonishing, audience-encompassing and world-conjuring performance as the leitmotiv Chorus (below) was the undoubted highlight of last night’s Henry V at the RSC: and so, the line is deservedly his. (As the applause refused to fade, he left the stage, gently, slowly, arm-in-arm, with Jane Lapotaire – a wise, charismatic, majestic Queen Isobel; who also commanded the stage – a paired model of grace; and perhaps an apt moral, too: encompassing wisdom, maturity and expertise.)

I’ve said it before – but it really is worth repeating… –

…his apparently natural – but deeply thoughtful and intelligent – approach to stagecraft wipes everything else from your mind: bringing him into rapid, but lingering focus. Feelings flit across his face; a variance in tone heightens the impact of a word; a throwaway gesture pulls the audience with him – rendering all those around him suddenly a tad less effective; until he generously encompasses them in his talent, letting them, too, shine with him – and then in front of him. His timing is perfection.

And so it was, last night. Strangely – but bringing another wry smile to my face (helping eradicate yet more Shakespeare-inspired tears…) – after such a mighty performance: in his baggy, avuncular cardigan, professor’s scarf and tatty cords – no-one seemed to notice him mingling with the sated crowds leaving the theatre: his only real disguise a pair of subtle spectacles. (As I have suspected for many a year: the man truly is Superman!)

Oliver Ford Davies (Chorus) – photo by Keith Pattison/RSC

Rhetorically, of course, Ford Davies begins by asking…

…Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

…knowing that the answer is an undoubted “yes”! Not just because of his pleading “invention” – O for a Muse of fire…! – repeatedly prompting and prodding our imaginations – For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings – but helped, definitely, by Gregory Doran’s (probably deserved and appropriate) appropriation of the lion’s (or artistic director’s) share of this season’s scenery budget: producing another intelligent, transparent, well-crafted, classical interpretation.

The artful set design (again – as with the previous histories in this sequence), by Stephen Brimson Lewis (with lighting by Tim Mitchell), uses elements from both Richard II and Henry IV – which, I suppose, should make the staging of the whole King and Country cycle (of which this is a fitting and rip-roaring finale) at the Barbican that much simpler. (Moan, moan, grumble, moan: why do we not get this series at the supposed ‘home’ of our beloved theatre company…? You’d think London was where Shakespeare wrote and staged his plays – or something.) And we thus first see Mr Chorus ambling around backstage, during the mandatory ‘mobile phone’ announcement, before the houselights eventually dim, checking the props; then coming forward – in a humorous move that both anticipates our many moments of later mirth – and prompts the arrival of Henry himself: for one brief, jealous, twinkling of eye and crown. As the action is transferred (although the Chorus continues to interact, throughout) to the rest of the cast (beginning with the cunning, wonderful, sympathetic, authoritative, genial Jim Hooper – reappearing later as Sir Thomas Erpingham: he of the cloak – commanding the stage as the prolix Archbishop of Canterbury), almost unnoticed (mainly because of the high quality of delivery), the scenery manifests itself around them. Only at the epilogue – Which oft our stage hath shown; and for their sake, In your fair minds let this acceptance take – will we once more, fittingly, see through the breach of the old proscenium arch to the deep back wall of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

The Chorus – laying these rude mechanicals bare – is, of course, Will himself (although maybe also deputising for the director?) – apologizing for his “rough and all-unable pen”, pursuing…

…the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.

…and, after the startling Hecuba – where each actor also characterizes, “in turn, therefore, the rôle of the traditional ‘chorus’” – you realize just how ingenious “Our bending author” has been in his adoption and reinvention of this pragmatic classical device (as well as how what I described as “other pertinent parallels” – not only between the two dramas, but different styles of theatre – are drawn to the fore).

It is a play I have loved from a very early age – mostly due to Laurence Olivier’s Academy Award-winning 1944 ‘propaganda’ film: “a triumph of colour, music, spectacle and soaring heroic poetry”; and which may well be the origin of my lifelong adoration of the Sweet Swan of Avon. And I do not think it is a leap too far – jumping o’er times, Turning th’ accomplishment of many years – to cite “the first Shakespeare film to be both artistically and commercially successful” as one of this production’s inspirations. (See it: and see why.)

[Oh, and incidentally… some of that movie’s awe-inspiring music – by William Walton – will be performed by the Orchestra of the Swan, at Stratford ArtsHouse, at a special commemoration concert, The Battle of Agincourt: 26 October 1415, on Tuesday, 20 October 2015. (Leslie Bridgewater’s moving music from Anthony Quayle’s 1951 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production – part of the Festival of Britain; and memorable for the casting of the then-almost-unknown Richard Burton, aged 26, in the lead rôle… – also features on the Henry V Music & Speeches CD that accompanies this production.)]

Paul Englishby’s stirring score, though, is more redolent of “the sparseness of voice and brass” (the supreme pairing of Andrew Stone-Fewings and Chris Seddon on modern baroque trumpets) of Doran’s Richard II than its overly “starring rôle” in Henry IV – “punctuating and announcing scenes with perfectly-nuanced, repeated themes” – although (and maybe it’s to do with my deafness – and there were captions, thankfully, last night, as well) I do wish directors would not force their actors to compete (especially when there’s singing) with what is supposed to be background atmosphere. Either let it finish; or tone it down! Please!

So, what of Alex Hassell (top) as “The well-appointed king” Henry – who I have previously described as “less fluent… less convincing” than those around him…?

Well, do you want the good news or the bad? The good, eh? Okay. Well, I think – unlike Burton – he is more suited to Harry than Hal: his macho, jaw-jutting posturings (which seem to have attracted almost Harry Styles-like devotion amongst certain, er, audience demographics) befitting his well-fitting sway and suit of armour (part of a wonderful array of almost steampunk-like outfits created by the mega-talented RSC Workshops).

And the peak of this performance has to be his controlled and skilful rendering of the St Crispin’s Day speech: which, as a set piece, is utterly mesmerizing – beginning slowly, sotto voce, and crescendoing, accelerating, to a peak fortississimo. He addresses “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” in the audience as an integral part of his company of soldiers; and we are completely at his command. His authority is unquestionable. We have watched him grow; develop the “conscience of the King”; ruminating out loud, almost Hamlet-like; but growing in confidence: and this moment is where it has to – and does – all come together. (In a way, it is also similarly enthralling to then watch that painfully-constructed confidence crumble instantly in the presence of “Fair Katherine, and most fair”.) He has agonizingly explored what it is to be royal, authoritative: and it is this arc, this journey, which pulls us along with him. But…

But – of course there’s a but; the bad news… – there are too many times when his timing appears to fail or falter: and he runs sentences together, maiming the poetry, inserting breaks in strange places. His emotion is still not always believable; and sometimes feels quaintly automated. (The part has over eight-hundred lines – a third of the total – and I must admit to being impressed, nonetheless, at Hassell’s apparently easy command of memory and language….) And, although I know he is trying to communicate his inner battles, I just wish he would sometimes simply relax – study Oliver Ford Davies, Jim Hooper, Jane Lapotaire! – for once, ceasing his aim to “Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness”, and concentrate on the humanity of the part: which never feels quite fully-developed, even when “Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent… and visits all his host… a little touch of Harry in the night”.

This is not to say that Hassell does not make a good Harry: he was actually a joy to watch; and part of an excellent – and large – ensemble. I just have a constant, nagging feeling that there is something being held back. But perchance the loosening (and true, innate greatness) will emerge with greater age.

Of that ensemble, it is hard not to want to list everybody. But I shall try and keep it short – to admit th’ excuse Of time, of numbers, and due course of things, Which cannot in their huge and proper life Be here presented.

A standout performance, for me, was Martin Bassindale, as the Boy – almost the still, central conscience of the play – accompanying the terrible trio of Bardolph; the immensely versatile Christopher Middleton’s Nym; and Antony Byrne’s gripping, poetic, piratic, and finally mournful Pistol. The moment Bassindale appeared on the balcony, with the other victims of Agincourt, during the roll-call of the dead, opposite his French counterpart (who he tried so hard to save), brought Wilfred Owen’s harrowing Strange Meeting to mind (as well as some small tear to my sentimental eye). Similarly, Keith Osborn’s authoritative Montjoy: stalwart, sympathetic and serious – a true match for King Henry.

The Welshman, Irishman and Scotsman – bringing much-needed laughter to the stage, as a counterpoint to the griefs of battle (as with Doran’s direction of Death of a Salesman, “What I found enlightening were the frequent moments of humour that emerged”) – were twinkle-eyed Joshua Richards (also wonderful continuing value as ruddy-nosed Bardolph) as Fluellen, master motormouth historian and – look you – leek-wielder; Andrew Westfield as grenade-juggling Macmorris; and Simon Yadoo as Jamy – who also gave a heart-warming rendition of one of my favourite Shakespearean characters: cynical, honest Everyman, Michael Williams.

The overconfident French trio of Robert Gilbert as the Dauphin (Wig of the Night award); Sam Marks as the Constable; and Evelyn Miller as Rambures (also a very cheeky Lady-in-Waiting) were highly entertaining and involving – but their portrayals did make me wonder if such parts were the inspiration for the French Knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail…? Additionally, Leigh Quinn (so very funny in Two Gentlemen) as Anglophile Alice, and Jennifer Kirby as “de Princess” Katherine, milked every mispronunciation and mot à double entente for all their worth: getting some of the biggest belly-laughs of the night!

I will try to go again, therefore, in the final fortnight of its local run… I thought, “transported, gentles” to home, through the mist-beribboned night….

But no “country cocks do crow”; although, certainly, timely, “the clocks do toll” – St Mary’s bell marking the last hour of the day, “sad and solemn”, so it seemed, as I passed by. No moon, however; no “horrid ghosts”: just two barn owls – hoary feathers radiant in my car’s white headlights – gliding purposefully, low across the vasty fields of Warwickshire.

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