Perhaps it’s that Henry V is such a triumphant example of the language of transforming imagination, soaring poetry transporting us all beyond the physical confines of the ‘Wooden O’, that the BBC’s next contribution to The Hollow Crown did not quite soar, despite John Hurt voicing the chorus. It’s why the play, probably first performed in 1599, has become almost a metaphor for British martial rhetoric, intentionally undercut here, and out of Henry’s mis-spent youth at the Boar’s Head, for the making of man and hero. Perhaps it needed Oliver’s theatrical references in the World War II film, or the Te Deum splendour and horror of Kenneth Brannagh’s version, but the moment Henry delivered his warning to the Burghers of Harfleur, with the gates already open, was almost comic. Perhaps that was the director’s intention, to deflate Hal’s semi psychotic but truthful vision of war, but, just as the poetic language speaks to an audience in a theatre, both that and the Crispin’s day speech need a bigger present audience. It is about the making of political and royal rhetoric, despite the ironies of life and horror of war, though with the vision of the truly good King in the frame.
What was so winning though was Tom Hiddleston’s human, sensitive and pasionate Harry, reminding us that love and brothership is behind his journey, at least he hopes, high to low. The strange wooing of Katherine was lovely, with the ravashing Melanie Thierry playing the forced French consort, and reminds that the drive of the play is towards union, from Germaine Greer’s ‘poet of marriage’, as she described Shakespeare. It also places, as ever, the play of language and metaphor at the very centre of everything, as does the famous English-French translation scene, with its sexual punning, getting to the heart of the matter. So of course brave King Harry dies, in fact of dissentry on the way back from France, but Henry VI is sired, truly ushering in those Wars of the Roses, and the perpetual fear of weak Kingship “Whose state so many had the managing, That they lost France and made his England bleed.”
Henry VI was related to Charles I of France, who thought he was made of glass, and a devote King who reportedly wandered the Court, in days where one fashion was for Court ladies to wear dresses with their breasts exposed, with his head in his hands. He is also supposed to have spent the battle of Tewksbery talking to a tree! A clear warning about the danger of heriditary monarchy. But it is work here on Southwark and Edmund Shakespeare, William’s unkown youngest brother, with the real founding under Henry VI of The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumpiton in Southwark, that originally owned The Vine where Edmund Shakespeare was staying when he died, that might open a valuable doorway on the very neglected Henry VI play cycle too. Just as it should open a door to Southwark itself and how that place of theatres also echoes back into the plays. Henry VI features a very dishonourable Bishop of Winchester, the power there, a false miracle, at the cusp of a Reformation, and all the themes that of course haunted power and Kingship during the Reformation. Yet perhaps there is another brotherhood at play when Shakespeare speaks of we “few, we happy few, we band of brothers” in Henry V, the brotherhood of the players themselves, excempt from military service, inside the arena of a theatre.
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