In the preliminary interviews to the live screening of the RSC Henry V (somewhat underwhelmingly advertised as ‘THE Shakespearean event of the autumn‘) Alex Hassell (Henry V, and, previously, Hal in the RSC’s 1 and 2 Henry IV) tried to wrestle with what he saw as the moral ambiguities of the title character. For Hassell this was not necessarily a straightforwardly nationalist play. It didn’t stop the ever-reliable Dominic Cavendish from writing a nauseating review in praise of Hassell’s Henry – for Cavendish the RSC production was (and this is a real quote) ‘just what the nation ordered’. Cavendish has previous form when it comes to willful misreadings of RSC productions in the service of his own political agenda – his review of The Shoemaker’s Holiday failed to mention that the production ended with the horror of a young boy’s conscription and preferred instead to emphasise what he saw as the fairy tale charm of the play. So, is Cavendish willfully misreading, or does Gregory Doran’s production, Hassell’s performance, (and, indeed, the play itself) give him cause to pen this nationalist celebration?
At this point I should probably reveal my own sense of the play. I don’t want to make excuses for Shakespeare or to sanitize the play by making it fit my own distaste for British/English nationalism, but I do think that Henry is a heavily ironized character and it really is not very hard to find examples which trouble the idea that he is an English hero. For example, when Henry disguises as a common soldier to assess the mood of the camp he is outwitted by the passionate and perceptive Michael Williams, who rejects the premise of the war and laments the devastation it causes, not only to bodies, but also, to souls. Henry’s soliloquy delivered shortly after meeting Williams demonstrates that he has missed the point. He laments his own responsibility and ignores his own privilege (which he dismisses as ‘ceremony’) and then labels the intelligent soldiers as ‘vacant’ wretches who sleep soundly in their beds. But we’ve just seen, of course, that what Henry says here is not true: Williams is not vacant and will not sleep soundly. So, when Henry meets Williams later, it has the potential to be really rather disturbing: when Henry reveals himself he humiliates and terrifies Williams and when he pardons Williams it is an act of ceremony which further enshrines his kingly power at the cost of allowing him to learn from the experiences of his subjects. This can be played in a variety of ways, of course, and in choosing their particular route, the RSC (to my mind) went a long way towards emblematizing the kind of production we were watching. Unfortunately, their staging choice served to exonerate Henry by allowing him to demonstrate his laddish chumminess. Again and again I kept thinking about Hassell’s Henry as a Hal-like figure and, to a certain extent, I felt invited to consider this to be part of his charm, appeal, and effectiveness.
So how was this staged? Simon Yadoo’s Williams initially reacted to the news that the man he had pledged to fight was, in fact, the king of England, with surprise, but, rather than stressing the danger of the situation – Williams has backed himself into a corner and now has to acknowledge he cannot keep his word without an enormous risk to his life – the RSC allowed Williams to keep his oath: he finished what appeared to be a deferential speech with an unexpected punch that caught Henry (and the audience) off guard. It’s a comic scene and the King laughs it off by giving Williams a reward, thereby demonstrating his essentially genial nature. But what’s the cost here? Henry somehow ends up coming out of this with the audience onside (or further onside than they might have been before) and all of the danger of the situation dissipated. There are times when Henry is presented as more malicious or cruel, of course, but the Williams scene and other moments like it work to make him a more palatable figure: by the end he is a somewhat chumpish would-be romancer. I thought Hassell brought out some of the childishness of Henry – some of his decision making smacks of playground revenge tactics: you hit me and I will hit you back – but while this might, at times, disturb, it also played into the hands of Cavendish and co. for whom an affable young man, rising into political and military prominence can be seen as what ‘the nation ordered’.