The newly announced Michael Grandage Company will present Jude Law in Henry V in November 2013 as the final of his five productions in residence at the Noël Coward Theatre. Meanwhile, Sam Mendes and the BBC unveil their films of the Prince Hal tetralogy (Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V) with new star Tom Hiddlestone going from the Boar’s Head and Gadshill to Harfleur and Agincourt.
In this new hail of Hals, Jamie Parker leads a robust revival by Dominic Dromgoole in the Globe by the Thames. This Henry V, without being jingoistic or noisy about it, captures a renewed national mood of celebratory confidence surrounding the summer celebrations of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympic Games.
At first, this seems unlikely, as the Chorus, played by the fine Irish actress Brid Brennan as a serving woman, introduces the politicking bishops of Canterbury and Ely taking turns on a velvety commode. And Parker’s Henry is told in no uncertain terms that he cannot “revel into dukedoms there” (i.e. in France) while Sam Cox’s wonderfully funny and lugubrious Pistol milks the scatological references in his farewell to the hostess for all they are worth.
But this is a play that transcends its own patriotic fervour by celebrating the doubts surrounding it: the flawed humanity of the protagonists on both sides, not least in Parker’s picture of a king who goes to war while mingling with his men under cover of night and disguise.
The Globe audience erupts with a cheer as Parker cries God for Harry, England and St George at the siege of Harfleur, but they are stunned into silence as he assures a soldier in the field, “Every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.” Parker was a likeable Hal to Roger Allam’s Falstaff in the Henry IV plays at this address; he’s grown into a powerful and discerning monarch.
That doesn’t deter him in his one horrible outburst of rage – “Kill all the prisoners!” – but that aberration has been prompted by the enemy’s breach of the rules of engagement. He assumes his place in the nation’s iconography – “We are the makers of manners, Kate,” is a line Prince William might have muttered to his own Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge – and proves a charmingly awkward wooer.
Dromgoole provides heraldry and trumpets, but there is a low-key integrity about the show that refuses to lampoon the French unduly, so that even Kurt Egyiawan as the Dauphin is a sympathetic obsessive in the speeches about his horse, and Giles Cooper’s messenger Montjoy spared the crude responses some English lords sometimes offer to his confident assertion that they know him by his habit.
Brennan’s Chorus hustles us from scene to scene without undue pomp or ceremony before she subsides into the quiet dignity of Queen Isabel of France at the end, flanked by Olivia Ross' pretty princess and Paul Rider making a splendid meal of the Duke of Burgundy’s lament for the consequences of the war.
Even with a cast of 17, some of the doubling is a bit stretched, especially in the case of David Hargreaves, whose bushy white eyebrows are equally prominent in Corporal Nym, Sir Thomas Erpingham and the King of France.
But there is a really outstanding Fluellan from Brendan O’Hea, full-chested and hilarious with a giant leek stuck on his helmet to discomfort Pistol, and strong work, too, from RSC veteran Nigel Cooke as the Duke of Exeter and Matthew Flynn as Gower, one of the king’s backbone officers.
The hostess’s farewell to Falstaff is wonderfully well done by Lisa Stevenson, as the corpse is lowered from the upper level and she despatches him to Arthur’s bosom, though his nose was as sharp as a pen and he’d lately babbled of green fields. Even without the other history plays, and in the midst of foreign wars, the rich tapestry of Plantagenet England is continuously evoked and honoured.