Walking into Screen 3 at the Piccadilly Circus Apollo, I entered an empty auditorium with a blank screen. Wrong place, I thought, and went straight back through the door to check the Screen number.
Ticket, Screen 3. Sign above the door, Screen, 3. I was in the right place.
I re-entered and picked a seat half way up and half way across, and waited, alone. This was more like Samuel Beckett than Shakespeare. Eventually, however, the lights dimmed, the screen burst into life and . . . it was a trailer for the latest Romeo and Juliet blockbuster. Shakespeare utopia!
Eventually, the main event; and it started with a right crash, bang, wallop, as musicians circled the Chorus, played by actress Brid Brennan. Eventually, the belligerent banging ceased, and she approached the front of the stage to address the crowd. This is a crucial opening monologue: a post-modern apology for the limitations of the stage; an eloquent prolepsis, brilliantly written. Brid Brennan’s cheery delivery thus got us underway, and she popped up at key points throughout the proceedings to explain the various settings and locations.
Henry V is an exploration of one of Shakespeare’s favourite themes – leadership. However, unlike King Lear or Julius Caesar, which explore decline and fall, this is a story of a man’s ascent to greatness. It is also a story of personal transformation. In the Henry IV plays, the future Henry V features as a wanton wastrel, young Hal, who spends his time boozing with old reprobates at the Boar’s Head tavern. Misspent youth is actually an important motif throughout this play, referenced in the bawdy banter of his old drinking companions, Ancient Pistol, Bardolph and Nim. It also surfaces in frequent references to his tarnished reputation, and in the insult of a casket of tennis balls sent by the French Dauphin – the final straw that tips Anglo-Gallic tensions into all-out war.
However, as Henry V strides around the stage, we see a man already transformed into a King. Jamie Parker’s portrayal is masterly, showing a man of great charisma, authority and emotional intelligence. The German sociologist Max Weber introduced the concept of “ideal type” – the defining distillation of a role or institution. Jamie Parker’s Henry embodies such an ideal type – the very essence of effective Kingship.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the initial interactions between the reprobates at the Boar's Head can be confusing. The discourse is, however, highly amusing, and important in terms of the narrative; giving voice to the poor but spirited common man, who would rather spend his time in the pub, but is caught up in national mobilisation for a brutal war. During these early exchanges, Hal’s old mentor, Falstaff, dies unseen in the inn, so his young assistant joins the army too. Both innocence and experience are thus represented.
So too are the different nations of the British Isles, through entertaining comic stereotypes. Of these, the main character is the patriotic Welshman, Fluellen (trans: Llewellyn), generously played by Brendan O’ Hea. While Shakespeare signifies ethnicity through rich stereotype, he also plays with and undermines such two dimensional characterisations. Thus, while we enjoy the politically incorrect gags, we come to like this well-meaning and competent soldier; an honourable and welcome counterfoil to the sleazy English thief, Ancient Pistol.
The French are also portrayed using stereotype, though it does not dominate our understanding of them. The Dauphin is played by Kurt Egyiawan, who accentuates the young man’s arrogance, and his ultimately fatal disregard for the English King and his people. David Hargreaves, as Charles VI, presents a fragile and anxious ruler who fully understands the threat to his crown and country.
As the play descends into butchery we witness a second transformation in Henry, from a thrusting, young warrior, revelling in the glory of war, to a seasoned, wiser leader, having been confronted with the carnage of this conflict. At the end of the battle of Agincourt, we see a chastened, more compassionate man. This personal transformation sets the scene for the final peace-brokering between England and France, and Henry’s difficult wooing of the lynchpin in this deal, the French princess, Catherine, delightfully played by Olivia Ross. The transformation from Hal the wastrel to Henry the international statesman is complete.
As an exposition of leadership, Henry V is a master-class. It shows how the greatest leaders combine a command of the dramatic, with focus, determination and drive. In this year of the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, Henry V is still very much the ideal type of leadership; widely emulated but inevitably unmatched. An ideal expounded, explored and ultimately undermined by Shakespeare.
As I left the auditorium, I looked around at all the empty seats – testimony to the hundreds of Londoners who could have been transformed by this compelling drama . . . but couldn’t be bothered. What if a brilliant leader emerged, and no one turned up to hear him speak?
Indeed, what is a leader without an audience?
You can see Henry V in cinemas around the world. To find a cinema screening, go to http://onscreen.shakespearesglobe.com/#/findvenue
A DVD of this performance in available later on this year.