Henry V (RSC at the Barbican)

The final play in the Shakespeare Tetralogy which has now evolved into ‘King and Country’, so from next month, if you missed the first three plays, ‘Richard II’ and ‘Henry IV parts 1 and 2’, go forth to the Barbican and make good that omission.

This is, surprisingly, the very first ‘Henry V’ I have seen on stage.  Of course I have seen the Olivier and Branagh films, with their rousing St Crispin’s Day speeches, and the BBC Shakespeare and Hollow Crown versions, but have missed out on real life versions.  So even if I hadn’t seen the preceding plays, I would have hot-footed it to this one.

Alex Hassell returns as the king he became at the end of ‘Henry IV part 2’, and he is still not quite the regal or commanding monarch: he had doubts, he shows some emotion at the losses of battle and the tough decisions he has to make to maintain army discipline.  It is an excellent performance, and I believed in him completely.

Also good in this cast are Oliver Ford Davies as a beautifully enunciated Chorus in a cardigan, the ever-reliable Jim Hooper in two roles and two beards (an early scene as the Polonius-like Archbishop of Canterbury pulls the humour out of an Act One scene), a delicate Jane Lapotaire as the Queen of France, and Joshua Richards in a brace of roles as boozy Bardolph and fiery Welshman Fluellen.  The set is rather good, too, with golden beads hanging in chains at each side of the stage, clouds, rain, and, as the Chorus asks us, a set of imaginary horses.

Gregory Doran’s productions often put humour ahead of the more serious aspects of the play, and here there was a bit of what can only be called ‘audience participation’ in Henry’s wooing scene with Katherine (Jennifer Kirby, who runs with both her scenes, playing broken English for fun) which didn’t quite work.  However, post-battle, there was a moment when the balconies and stage filled with mournful singing for the dead which was very moving.

I should also mention Sarah Parks’ Mistress Quickly, and her account of the last moments of the life of the (unseen) Sir John Falstaff, who died ‘babbling o’ green fields’, and Simon Yadoo’s impenetrable Scottish soldier, who offered comic relief in the calm before the storm of Agincourt.