Friday, August 17, 2012

'Henry V' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 16th August 2012

I left London for the duration of the Olympics.  I figured that it would be a sea of chaos, resentment and general bad vibes.  While I was away I made it a point to keep out of the loop of news.  I was dreading my return to London, a return, I presumed, into a mire of recriminations, blame and national soul-searching as 'our boys and girls' no doubt blundered their way into a few paltry medals.

Needless to say I was quite surprised when I returned to find a Union Jack proudly flying from damn near every window.  Newspaper columnists were talking about this being the start of a 'new Britain'!  It's been a very strange summer for this country, not least because everyone at the moment seems to be in a relatively good and patriotic mood.  The Olympic success, coupled with the recent jubilee seems to have re-awakened a latent and quietly burning patriotism in people.  In this sense, you couldn't ask for a better moment to stage a production of Henry V - surely the most jingoistic of Shakespeare's plays.  This is, after all a play where the good and noble King of England heads over to France and puts Johnny Foreigner firmly in his place in a battle which like the 1966 World Cup Final and VE Day has gone down as a high-point in English history: Agincourt.  

In its own way, the production does waves the flag, but it's a clever inversion.  The production re-stages the events of the play as a reflection of the war in Iraq.  Nearly every boombastic 'let's go' Britain aspect is inverted and satirised.  Director Henry Filloux-Bennett has cleverly been through the play with a fine toothcomb to root out every possible connection and reversal.

Jack Morris' Henry V
There is a bit of crowbarring to get the events and characters of Henry V to fit into this Iraq allegory.  In the run-up to the war we see King Henry as a broad caricature of Tony Blair, but obviously this comparison will not work when it comes to being in the actual events of the war , so Henry V becomes a Prince Harryesque soldier in the second half of the play.

While at times it can feel a bit clumsy, on the whole this transplant into the modern era is effective.  The first half has a definite air of "The Thick of It"/"In The Loop" with special advisers nervously and ingratiatingly buzzing around the men with the true power.  Henry V's court/the Blair government is portrayed as incompetent, scheming and duplicitous, a place of chipped mugs, and suits that are slightly too big for the people that inhabit them.

At the centre of this is Jack Morris' Henry, an extremely unflattering version of Tony Blair.  He portrays him as a venal, coldly calculating warmonger who knows exactly what to say to stir up a patriotic fervour in his subjects.  The famous "one more unto the breach dear friends" speech is utterly demolished here.  We are shown Henry rehearsing it, working out where to put the emphasis with coaching from his military advisers.  Then, we see him 'step in front of the cameras' and deliver the speech to the nation.  Jack Morris' Blair impression is a bit over-the-top, but does manage to capture the essential insincerity of the man.  He seems to have taken special care to capture his Steve Bell 'mad eye' - a hint of what is churning under the surface.  This speech, perhaps the most traditionally militarily rousing in literature is utterly turned on its head here - the audience cannot help but laugh in bemusement.  

Reacting to the death of Falstaff/
While the first half seems vaguely farcical, the second, dealing with the war itself is far more serious and horrifying.  We meet two drunken soldiers, laughing and smoking and for a moment we allow ourselves to identify with them.  Then they pull a hooded, sobbing man on stage and proceed to verbally abuse, viciously beat and urinate on him.  The mocking dialogue throughout this scene is lifted from a comedic scene in the play about a horse.  

The wartime events are consistently painted as tyrannically cruel - we see a woman dragged from houses pleading for their lives and paranoid soldiers frantically pointing a gun at everything that moves - all the while speaking the dialogue of one of the greatest Englishmen ever to have lived.

The production makes excellent use of video to both set the scene, and show events that are unstageable (at least in the cramped confines of this theatre anyway).  Many of them take the form of rolling news updates.  We see the death of Falstaff announced on BBC News 24, pictures of the torture at Abu Ghraib, coffins draped in the English flag rolling down the road and portentous imagery of Tony Blair and George Bush Jr marching around in lockstep.  It's well-produced stuff, and the authenticity helps anchor these events in reality, even while the characters speak in Shakespearian language.  

Another Henry V (centre)
The Old Red Lion Theatre is quite small, cramped and hot, before attending I was wondering how they were planning to stage an epic battle there.   As it turned out, the staging consisted primarily of an ordinary looking wooden crate, which transformed into various items as things were draped over it and placed on it.  In contrast to this minimalism, the costumes and props seemed disturbingly realistic.  The military uniforms and rifles seemed to have a definite 'weight' to them, both physically in the way the actors handle them, and in air of danger they emanate.  I feel a certain sense of danger whenever there's a gun on stage, and this was accentuated by the way the actors worked with them.  They'd obviously studied or been advised in how soldiers behave and move with guns - they would lower them if another soldier strayed into their line of fire, and seemed to my untrained eye to be aiming them realistically.  I also noted how the soldiers moved around each other, tapping each other on the shoulder and making little gestures to indicate orders.  In a production in which all the actors play multiple roles this shift into militaristic body language helped define the second half in opposition to the first.

As I was watching the video footage of Blair and Bush I felt something that I hadn't anticipated in the slightest: nostalgia.  And if this production does have a flaw then this is it.  It feels like a production that would have been immensely powerful in 2005 or 2006, but nearly 10 years on from the invasion of Iraq it seems almost historical.  This is a problem, and this adaptation is turning over ground that has been examined many, many times before in numerous forms.  

The production makes some desultory attempts in the finale to tie everything to the Arab Spring, and the choice of video and music is very effective - but on further analysis it is hard to see the direct connections between the War in Iraq and the Arab Spring.  Naturally, there are connections, but not quite the direct ones that it seems we are being led to make.  

Additionally, if this production had been performed as the War in Iraq was ongoing I would be far more forgiving of the chops and changes required to fit Shakespeare's Henry V into this setting.  The sheer anger at the crimes committed in the run up and during the war would have left me much more appreciative of the point of comparison.  But in 2012, viewing the War in Iraq retrospectively we can afford to be a bit more critical of the structure.  The character of Catherine is omitted entirely, and as a result of cuts and changes like these the narrative and emotional thrust of the play becomes a little bit more confused.  I have seen a few productions, and recently the 1944 Olivier film, so I knew what was going on, but even so I was a little lost at times.

I hope this criticism doesn't seem overly harsh - this is a worthwhile production and definitely worth seeing.  There's a sincere and well-outlined message here about the dangers of romanticising war and the problems of patriotism. In this regard it's well timed, coming as it does at an especially "rah-rah go Team GB" time.  Even so, this would have been extraordinarily effective if it had been staged a few years ago, and as a result there's a faint, nagging feeling of a missed opportunity. 

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