The play covers events surrounding King Henry V’s victory over France at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It is the fourth in Shakespeare’s cycle of eight history plays spanning the Wars of the Roses. A tradition holds that Henry V inaugurated the newly built Globe Theatre in 1599 – hence the ‘wooden O’ mentioned in the opening Chorus.
Shakespeare had already introduced Henry V in his Henry IV plays as Prince Hal, the freewheeling teenager who lived it up with Falstaff’s gang in the tavern at Eastcheap. Since then, following his painful rejection of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, Part 2, Henry has matured almost beyond recognition. He now has a pragmatism, focus and charisma rarely glimpsed before. As King he shows great resolve, and at times an unscrupulous determination to achieve his ends. He displays brilliant rhetorical skills, which he employs in a variety of different modes. He terrifies the Governor of Harfleur into surrender with threats of carnage, while contriving to foist responsibility onto him should the butchery actually take place. He is passionate and inspiring to his outnumbered soldiers before battle. And in Act 5 we see him charm the French Princess Katherine into marriage. A king for all seasons.
The play’s attitude to warfare has been variously interpreted. On the one hand as a piece of tub-thumping patriotism, a celebration of English valour leading to a miraculous triumph. In Shakespeare’s time it would have reflected nationalistic pride at recent conquests in Spain and Ireland. The most stirring passages have been widely adopted. Henry V is a favourite of politicians, and an urgent rallying cry is often referred to as a ‘St Crispin’s Day Speech’. It has been quoted, adapted and parodied on numerous occasions. Conversely, however, Henry V can be seen as an anti-war allegory. The play pulls no punches in depicting the savagery of conflict. In the twenty-first century, many people are made uncomfortable by a celebration of martial glory. Henry is at times devious, seemingly sincere but willing to resort to any form of compulsion and deceit in order to achieve his objectives. And his constant invoking of God can seem disingenuous. The play has the capacity, in common with many great works of art, to be understood and interpreted in radically different ways.
I’d never met Adrian Lester before, and sad to say, I didn’t see him play Henry V, so had to rely on his excellent reviews. But I was very well aware of his talent and remarkable versatility. If in doubt, talk to anyone who saw him play Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s all-male As You Like It in the 1990s. In terms of the demands made of an actor, there can’t be many characters further from Henry V. I was especially pleased when he agreed to discuss Henry V in view of the production’s strong contemporary resonances, being played in modern dress at the time of the invasion of Iraq. We met in February 2009 for lunch at a restaurant near his home in Dulwich, and he was generous with his time. We talked before the food arrived and again afterwards, and went on until interrupted by a call from his wife to remind him that he was late at home for babysitting duty.
Julian Curry: You played the lead in what was described as an ‘urgently topical’ production of
Henry V, at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Here’s part of a review: ‘This production will make you think deeply and disturbingly about the nature of war, of war leadership, with a shocking portrait of what war does to the souls of those engaged in it. It’s about national pride and the damage done to a politician’s soul in pursuing it.’ Does that ring a bell with you?
Adrian Lester: Yes, it does. I think the situation we found ourselves in as a country, at the time we did the play, helped to scrape off a kind of romantic veneer that the play can sometimes have. Performances can get lost in poetry and the beauty of the language. The deeper and uglier the emotions involved in any of Shakespeare’s plays, I think, the more vibrant the production will be. I have to admit that before we started work on it, I had a slightly removed sense of Henry V. I felt that it was about the higher end of human thought and endeavour, bravery and patriotism. But when we put the play on its feet in that particular climate, we saw that there was so much more in there.
For many people, Olivier’s film is the iconic Henry V. He made it in 1944 when heroes were hot and the validity of war was not an issue, and Churchill was Prime Minister. But by the time you played the part sixty years later, heroes were no longer fashionable, the war in Iraq was widely thought to be unjustified, and Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Each production reflected its time, but each was only partially true to Shakespeare’s text. Olivier expurgated the most gruesome aspects of war, but Nick Hytner maybe overemphasised them.
I don’t think so. We were very careful not to use the play to make a political statement. We wanted to make sure that it correctly reflected what we knew of modern-day politics. In the opening scene where Henry asks the Archbishop to make a case for war [1.2], there’s the understanding that if he does not make it convincing, Henry will take the money he needs from the Church. Once you put that in a Cabinet setting, with suits, ties, glasses of water, files and laptops, people thought we were being cynical. But actually it’s exactly the situation that Shakespeare created, and it’s one that people felt they were watching on BBC News 24. We were being told we have to go to war, and these are the reasons. But people were thinking ‘We’re not being given the whole story here, there’s something else happening.’
So if I asked if you were an anti-hero, you’d say no, would you?
Some people felt that Henry was still heroic because the country comes before the individual, the public good comes before considerations of whether he as a leader can sleep at night.
You’re making him sound a more selfless person than he sometimes seems.
He’s worried about his grave having a ‘tongueless mouth’, isn’t he, not even having ‘a waxen epitaph’. He’s concerned about his own legacy.
Well, there was a reflection of that in ‘History will be my judge’, that Blair kept saying. And again, everyone went ‘Whoo, you’re being cynical.’ But no, Shakespeare wrote it.
I have the impression that it was a brilliantly powerful account of the play, but some people felt it was not sufficiently equivocal.
Maybe they did. But we felt we were riding the middle ground. We were trying to be quite exact, with the information we have now on the conditions and the psychological effects of war. We had a paratrooper and an ex-SAS sergeant who did drill...