The Hollow Crown ended with the fourth play in the series, Henry V. It was brilliant, like the whole series, and it was great to see Henry V in sequence after the two Henry IV’s. I’ve seen Henry V several times, and the Falstaff and Mistress Quickly scene at the beginning doesn’t make much sense in a stand alone Henry V.
I thought framing the play with the funeral at beginning and end was a fine device. At first I was puzzled when a woman in black, who I couldn’t identify, turned up at the beginning, but at the end you see her again and it makes sense. By then you have enjoyed her as the radiant, playful Princess Katherine with rippling golden hair and a pale blue. girlish dress, and now she is transformed into a braided, draped piece of mourning and motherhood. The adventures and romance of Henry were glorious, but short-lived.
Henry V is a play with a fantastic action hero at its centre and so there were plenty of shots of Henry galloping on a white horse, his cloak flying behind him. Tom Hiddleston looked right – the director had left off the usual pudding basin haircut -and was a young man full of energy and warmth, surrounded by a posse of capable old codgers (all excellent, and Paul Freeman as Erpingham was perfect in his smiling delivery). Henry is an epitome of Rudyard Kipling’s If – he walks with kings (he is one) and has the common touch, all men count with him and none too much. This was an unbombastic Henry. Hiddleston seems to be able to do anything, so no doubt he could perform the famous motivational speeches, the once more in the breach, dear friends, and the Crispin Day one as a leader to his troops. But he was directed to get in a huddle with his immediate comrades urging them on hoarsely, like a coach at a football team rather than Elizabeth I at Tilbury. Very different from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. One of Branagh’s strengths is to convince as a leader of men, as he did in Shackleton.
They didn’t cut the Harfleur speech, when Henry threatens atrocities if the town does not surrender, as Laurence Olivier’s wartime version did. Any modern production of a play with a war setting will emphasise the cruelties and terrors, so there were plenty of shots of the Boy, who follows the army after he picked up the St George Cross armband at the beginning reacting to the deaths and fear around him.
I thought that a production that underlined the horrors was going to rob us of excitement – the advance of the cavalry and the arrow shower, but we got them both – a lovely wide shot of the horses approaching, the English bowmen waiting and the hooves thundering closer and closer. Not as good an arrow shower as in the Olivier and Branagh film versions, but pretty good.
Henry V is – well not pure jingoism, as nothing Shakespeare ever does is pure and simple – cynics, nay sayers and no-shows have their turns – it’s got a touch of the Wilfred Owen among the Rupert Brookery – but full on aggressive patriotism, with everyone in the play telling us how marvellous Henry V is – and of course he is marvellous, like James Bond with heavier responsibilities. His enemy is a sneery Dauphin (Edward Akrout, an English bloke’s nightmare of a handsome, French dude advertising perfume). The Dauphin and his henchmen are arrogant sods whose horses wear dressy armour – that concertinaed neck protector on the Dauphin’s horse looked amazing. The English stand stoically covered in mud. If there any image of Frenchman vs Englishman that has staying power with the English, this one is it, the flashy smoothy vs the dogged rough substance.
Like James Bond Henry gets the girl, who is delightful and French to boot (Melanie Thierry – utterly charming, whether giggly or serious). When in the final wooing scene Henry adds to his other virtues a GSOH and amusing self-deprecation and the beautiful young Prince and Princess kiss each other, it’s the end of a fairy tale, but they do not of course live happily ever after Henry dies, and England bleeds. The Chorus in the play tells us so, this production showed us, that glory existed but was cut short.