Henry V, the capstone of the Royal Shakespeare Company productions at BAM in this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, is a robust staging of a play often regarded as excessively jingoistic. Yet in the hands of director Gregory Doran, it proves far more nuanced than that, a lively and fascinating mixture of the heroism and opportunism that war produces. Alex Hassell inhabits the nobility of Henry V more persuasively than he does the callow prince in the two parts of Henry IV; tall and strapping, he bears the weight of duties with confidence and speaks the renowned speeches thrillingly.
The play is about war and peace, and the making of a great leader, but the events also embrace the end of Falstaff—reported offstage—and his cronies, all of whom die, with one exception. The insufferable Pistol (Antony Byrne), a braggart soldier, survives to return to England and spin stories of bogus heroism in France.
Oliver Ford Davies’s resonantly voiced Chorus, dressed in relaxed modern clothes—a cable-knit cardigan and slacks, with a red scarf, for instance—acts as a host, describing the action and places, which jump from England to France and back again. “Work, work your thoughts!” he cries out, exhorting the audience to keep up with the swift scene changes.
First, Henry lays claim to the French throne based on Salic law—a complicated speech by Jim Hooper’s Archbishop of Canterbury that is necessarily leavened with humor. Henry then receives a gift from the French Dauphin, a box of tennis balls from which pops up a hand, like a jack-in-the-box. It’s a sly insult to the playboy prince that Hal was, but Robert Gilbert’s preening Dauphin has misjudged the newly minted king.
The ensuing war with France occupies most of the play, and Hassell makes King Henry an expectedly heroic figure. His delivery of the cornerstone St. Crispin’s Day speech, which coined a well-known phrase, is delivered with intelligence and confidence: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
But who remembers the siege of Harfleur, when Henry threatens the town fathers with their daughters' rape? Yet there it is: “What is it then to me, when you yourselves are cause,/If your pure maidens fall into the hand/Of hot and forcing violation?” It’s not the only time that he warns that rape will be a legitimate consequence of the battle.
Doran burnishes small moments in Henry V. If Shakespeare doesn’t paint the English as completely heroic, neither are the French all bad, though they get basically the same rap that they do today: snooty and full of themselves. Gilbert’s narcissistic Dauphin instigates plenty of raillery, even among his own courtiers, the Duke of Orleans (Nicholas Gerard-Martin) and the Constable of France (Sam Marks).
Orleans: “I know him to be valiant.”
Constable: “I was told that by one that knows him better than you.”
Orleans: “What’s he?”
Constable: “Marry, he told me himself.”
And the French trash-talk the English, frequently described as ragged and pale: “yon poor and starved band,” the Constable calls them.
But the English characters show as many warts. Martin Bassindale as the disillusioned Boy, one of the hangers-on with Bardolph and company, Falstaff’s jolly crew, has a marvelous soliloquy in which he says that Pistol “has a killing tongue and a quiet sword.” Though he declares that “I must leave them and find some better service,” Doran inserts a scene in which one sees all the Boy’s hopes undone. Or take Joshua Richards’s Bardolph, who points to his nose, reddened from drink, and says of Falstaff: “That’s all the riches I got in his service.”
And there are moments that have nothing to do with nationalism, as in the Dauphin’s frank acknowledgment of female sexuality—one of those easily overlooked passages that, when heard, prove astonishing: “Our madams mock at us and plainly say/Our mettle is bred out; and they will give/Their bodies to the lust of English youth/To new-store France with bastard warriors.”
Through it all, Henry calls on God again and again to help the English, and he credits God with his victory: “Praise be God, and not our strength, for it!” If this play is remembered as uncommonly jingoistic, Doran and his actors overall have nevertheless unfolded a marvelous production with vividly drawn characters who still have something to say to us.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s of Henry V plays in repertory with Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Richard II, through April 21 at BAM Harvey Theater (30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix St. in Brooklyn) through May 1. Tickets start at $35; visit www.bam.org/theater/2016/henry-v for information.