Henry V

THEATRE | Henry V, Leeds Playhouse

There was a famous critical essay published in the late ‘70s with the fabulous title, “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V.” Famous, at least, if you happened to be taking “A” level Eng. Lit. back then, which had that very Shakespeare play on the syllabus.

The rabbit/duck optical illusion is well known (look it up on Google if you aren’t familiar.) And the gist of the essay was that whether Henry was seen as the rabbit, “the mirror of all Christian Kings,” or duck, “an amiable monster,” as Hazlitt put it, depended on what political and cultural frameworks you viewed the play through. Both were equally valid interpretations. 

I always thought this was complete rubbish. I was a duck man. Rabbit types were apologists and propagandists for British Imperialism. Henry V was an archetypal war pig.

The new production at Leeds Playhouse is definitely on the side of the duck. Henry walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and is portrayed on stage as an absolute duck. 

The new production begins with the death scene from Henry IV Part Two. It’s a complicated event, but two crucial things are conveyed; Henry IV murdered his predecessor and usurped the throne of England (which means Henry V will have no genuine claim to his own realm, let alone France) and the king-to-be will do anything to distract, cover up, and dissemble this fact. And so he lies to his dying father, and sobs, and pleads innocence when confronted with the fact that he made off with the crown and tried it on for size even before the current king was properly pronounced dead. It’s an obnoxious display.

All sociopaths, when caught out, can lie to order, emote on cue, and blame anyone else but themselves for their bad behaviour when it serves their interests. Henry V lies, emotes, and shifts the blame for his actions consistently through the play.

Next scene involves a convoluted, incomprehensible, tongue-twisting legal justification for Henry’s invasion of France. It’s justified by something called the “Salic law” which I doubt even the most devoted Elizabethan nerd knew or cared much about. In Shakespeare’s text it’s delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, moments before has admitted he’s just bunged an enormous amount of cash to Henry for the French campaign in order to bribe the king into overturning a recent parliamentary bill that would have had severe financial consequences for the church. Henry simply wants a pretext for invasion. Think Weapons of Mass Destruction. I think it’s difficult to get Shakespeare’s irony across to a modern audience, but this production makes a brave attempt. The reason for war is a complete “conjuration”, or what we’d call today, propaganda.

Then we switch to the next scene, the immediate provocation for war. Henry gets a visit from a delegation representing the French ruling class. He receives a minor insult. In Shakespeare’s original a “tun of tennis balls”, reduced here to a single ball. It’s still funny even if it doesn’t quite fit with the grammar of the ensuing dialogue, which consistently refers to “balls” in the plural. Henry kicks off, threatening to turn the French prince’s “balls into gunstones,” and I think the innuendo is intended. Because of this juvenile joke Henry promises to kill all the French who get in his way, and lay waste the country. Obviously, it was God what made him do it though.

His excuse for unleasing horrific carnage, literally, is a load of balls.

One of the most striking scenes in this new production is Henry’s “once more unto the breach” speech at the battle of Harfleur. It’s difficult to think of this without picturing Laurence Olivier in the wartime film (financed by Churchill, as blatant war propaganda) where Henry is with the troops in the fray of battle urging his men on with mighty rhetoric. This has Henry alone, curled in a foetal position, and talking to himself. It brings out the genuine strangeness of the speech. Henry urges his troops to “imitate the action of the tiger.” Now we know that Elizabethan notions of zoology were mainly fantastical, but what follows is frankly bonkers.

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,

Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

He’s literally asking his soldiers to imagine a very stiff erection emerging out of his forehead… These days we have a gesture for this, and a phrase. 

Dick head!

I’m pretty sure Shakespeare knew what he was saying here. And this production backs up this interpretation. Henry was a grotesque dick head.

And Henry proves this by his behaviour before the surrender of Harfleur, threatening the town with rape, torture, mass murder, and the slaughter of babies if he doesn’t get his way. Obviously, as usual, this won’t be his fault. Any war crimes committed will be the sole responsibility of the Harfleur leaders for not giving in sooner. 

My favourite scene of Henry V has always been when Henry disguises himself before the battle of Agincourt and walks around talking to his troops, hearing what they really think, Act 4 Scene 1. The soldier Williams presents the case against the war brilliantly, and Henry has no answer but a lot of hot air. And a monologue that has always made me want to puke and throw poisoned darts at the actor (fortunately the Playhouse frisk us before we enter the theatre.) “Upon the King…” my arse! This new production nails it, and the subsequent scene where Henry reveals himself to Williams and pardons him on a whim and gives him a bag of cash because he’s momentarily feeling magnanimous. What would have happened if Henry had had a headache is anyone’s guess.

This is definitely a production that speaks to today, and I’ll even forgive it the overlong, a bit too heavy handed ending. It’s a good joke but it goes on too long.

If you like your Shakespeare history plays to be a blast of jingoistic Frenchy bashing, armoured up to the eyeballs, with enough weaponry flashing and clashing about the stage that it would make Vladimir Putin think again, then this production may not be for you.

If you don’t have a taste for war piggery and question ruling propaganda then you’ll probably approve.

After all, the powers that be are still busying giddy minds with foreign balloons. 

Henry V is on at the Leeds Playhouse till next Saturday. Definitely worth a visit.