Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 6 November, 2007

With this production, RSC artistic director Michael Boyd completes his grand projet of staging Shakespeare's entire (accidentally accreted) Planagenet history cycle with the same ensemble of actors. All eight plays in The Histories appear in repertoire in Stratford until next March, then come to the Roundhouse in London. I had been awaiting this instalment with interest, less because it is the final piece of the jigsaw than because, on viewing its predecessors Henry IV parts 1 and 2 in August, I had wondered how actor Geoffrey Streatfeild might turn his unusually cold, unsympathetic Prince Hal into a national darling as King Harry.

He nearly pulls it off. This king is clearly conscientious; he takes his responsibility for the country and its people, and to them, with utmost seriousness. He is a Good King, but a hard one to love. The light of human engagement shines only occasionally in his eye; at crucial moments such as "Once more unto the breach" it is replaced by the stare of the fanatic. More often than either he seems simply to be focused elsewhere, as on the eve of Agincourt when the king disguises himself to mingle with his troops, and falls into conversation and then dispute with the cynical trooper Michael Williams. Streatfeild's monarch prefers to muse introspectively on his kingship rather than turn it into a dialogue; for most of the scene his back is to Lex Shrapnel's Williams, as he talks about himself to himself.

From such a king, occasional breakthroughs of connection may be all the sweeter, though not sweet enough to justify the overall characterisation. The great Crispin's Day speech starts dubiously, with the king standing above and apart from his army on the steel rampart of Tom Piper's set, but as he first sits and then climbs down to join his officers, we feel he is literally taking a stand with them as he rallies them. His final-act bilingual wooing of the French Lady Katherine is also a delight, as long as we ignore the fact that his claims to be more naturally a roisterer who "could win a lady at leap-frog... or bound my horse for her favours" are entirely un-backed-up by conduct or temperament. As the princess, Alexia Healy has only two scenes in which to shine, but shine she does, particularly in such fine rapport with Hannah Barrie as her maid. Of the English soldiers, the former hangers-on of Falstaff – Bardolph, Nym, Pistol – are rendered efficiently rather than strikingly; the account of the fat knight's own offstage death from old age might almost pass unnoticed. The most memorable soldier we see is Captain Fluellen, whom Jonathan Slinger (remarkable in other parts of the cycle as Richard II and Richard III) turns from a simple Welsh caricature into an individual who both amuses and occasionally shocks us.

If characterisation is only erratically successful, the visual concept is patchier still. Piper's all-purpose metallic set comes into its own in various martial settings: Forbes Masson, delivering the prologue, changes the famous description of the Shakespearean theatre as "this wooden O" into "this rusty shed", and also more candidly refers to the passage of the play as "three and a half hourglasses". However, having the gaudily clad French nobles fly in and out upon trapezes for their scenes makes it look as if Henry is waging war against The Flying Wallendas. Sending white paper streamers over the field of Agincourt creates an impressionistic sense of post-battle turmoil, but also suggests that the madcap young Hal has revenged himself upon the French by TP'ing their country.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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