Year of Shakespeare: Henry V

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe, Dir. Dominic Dromgoole, 8 June 2012 at The Globe, London

By Abigail Rokison, University of Cambridge

At the end of the Globe Theatre’s ‘English’ offering, Henry V, I am left with more questions than coherent thoughts on the production. Firstly, one wonders, is this production really the finale of the Globe to Globe Festival or is it simply the start of the Globe’s new season?  If it is the former, as the pre-show announcement on Friday 8th June suggested, then it is hard to see why the production has not been subject to any of the restrictions imposed upon the other thirty six productions – a running time of no more than two and a quarter hours and no discernible ‘set’; Dromgoole’s Henry V is over three hours in length and the acting space is dominated by a scaffold that joins the stage and balcony.  The answer may well be because the production is in fact conceived as part of the Globe’s summer season, rather than as part of the Festival.  Indeed, it has a continuity with the Globe’s 2010 season in which Jamie Parker (now Henry V) played Hal in Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and with next season which will include the Henry VI plays.

The other major question lies over the choice of play.  Henry V has often been seen as Shakespeare’s most nationalistic play, and this production does little to contradict this reading, even omitting the final epilogue that undermines the apparently triumphant ending. The non-English characters are held up for ridicule – Welsh Fluellen is (albeit rather charmingly) eccentric, Scottish Captain Jamy is deliberately impossible to understand and Alice’s English pronunciation is hyperbolically absurd.  The audience, many of whom may have spent the past few weeks celebrating Shakespeare spoken in other dialects, is now encouraged to laugh at the accents of these latter two characters.  When Henry V is advertised and announced as the ‘English’ production it is unclear whether this refers to the language or the country.

Having raised these questions and concerns, however, I would add that despite the production being rather slow (largely the fault of a few actors who draw out every word) there are some engaging performances, not least from Jamie Parker in the title role.  Parker succeeded in tempering the sense of nationalistic fervor by admitting a degree of uncertainty and humanity to his King, qualities no doubt derived from having played Hal.  He is clearly nervous at the start of Act 1 scene 2 where he is seen practicing how to present himself in front of the court and when he hears of Bardolph’s execution stumbles over his assertion ‘We would have all such offenders so cut off’, before regaining his composure, clearly distressed at the death of his former friend. The production also contains some of the best trademark elements of the Globe’s in house productions – the actors’ ability to involve the audience, casting them as soldiers and citizens, using them as an extension of a character’s conscience and singling out individual groundlings to comic effect; musicians playing early modern instruments; and the use of the yard to create a sense of all encompassing action.

It is true that it might have been difficult to have given Henry V to any other country to perform at the Festival, but there is a danger that this production feels like an extension of the sort of patriotic fervor which has been abundantly evident in England this year with the Queen’s Jubilee flotilla sailing past the Globe less than a week before this production opened. All in all it is an intelligent, clear reading of the play but the Globe has opted for a traditional (albeit not original practices) production, which differs little from its customary fare.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


Want to know what others are saying about this performance? Look below to find out:

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Author:Abigail Rokison

Abigail began her career as a professional actor, training at LAMDA, and was a lecturer in Drama and English in the Education Faculty in Cambridge and Director of Studies in English and Drama at Homerton College, Cambridge. She is now Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. She is the author of Shakespearean Verse Speaking (Cambridge University Press) and Shakespeare for Young People (Continuum).
  • Charles Morton

    I saw this production on Saturday and thought it was really very good. I am inclined to agree with the 4 out of 5 rating given by Humphrey below and would certainly recommend people see it if they get the chance.

    Jamie Parker was outstanding. The best Henry V I have seen. I thought he managed to get the balance between the public strength and the personal fears of the king just right. This may well be, as said below, due to Parker being able to perform all three plays in which Hal features. The moments of connection to the previous plays add an emotional depth to what can be seen as a very jingoistic portrayal of war. The weight of Henry’s past and the country’s past (in the death of Richard II) lie heavy on his shoulders. I think the characterization of smaller characters such as Fluellen (which I thought was a joyous performance) shows Shakespeare’s skill for balancing the plays. A character that is one of his more pompous and humorous creations is given one of the most important parts of the play after the attack on the camp.

    The whole play succeeded in balancing the comic and dramatic elements of the script. I did not find the accents overly ridiculous, and indeed it raised an interesting idea of the fragmentation of Britain, in a play written before James I’s drive for unification. It shows a friendly rivalry that lies behind the required solidarity of an army. 

    There were some very strong performances and nothing anywhere near a bad performance. It could have been interesting to have given a French company the chance of doing Henry V as part of the Globe to Globe season, but it was a brilliant start to the new Globe season.
    It was the first time I have been to see a production at The Globe and it is certainly a play that relies on the interaction with the audience, something that the production used very effectively for the comic possibilities and Parker in particular used not only for the great speeches to the troops but also those moments of personal anguish that make Henry V such an intriguing character.

  • Humphrey

    I saw this production last Saturday, at which time they awarded the Sam Wannamaker award to Gregory Peck this year.

    I thought the production was indeed a clear, thoroughly traditional production of Henry V but in sooth your article has missed/dismissed what was – in my mind – the most overwhelming and admirable aspect of the production; Fluellen! Captain Jamy! Bardolph! In your heavy criticism of Dromgoole’s suggestion that this was part of the Globe 2 Globe series, you have actually stifled yourself from enjoying what was an enormously entertaining, thoroughly amusing, downright hilarious supporting cast who at my viewing at least kept the audience engaged from first to last. What greater challenge is there, what more important objective when performing Shakespeare than to connect with the audience and make even the most reluctant spectator marvel, laugh for horror and cry for joy?? Dude, at your viewing didn’t the theatre tremble with the roar of the audience as they shouted “For Harry, England and St. George!!!!!” At mine they could hear the cry from across the river! In fact, I do not believe it is possible to improve on Fluellen’s performance, as he captured both the futile pettiness of patriotic values as well as the glorious spirit and charm of them, in perfect balance, so much so, that despite being very foolish and thoroughly argumentative he was entirely wonderful to behold.

    Perhaps Dromgoole’s intention was to show how ‘England’ no longer identifies itself as anything but the ‘United Kingdom’ now and Shakespeare’s keen and foresightful awareness of that presents a special oppotunity to involve not only English patriotism (of which, let’s be honest, there’s plenty of) but also our deep roots and shared history with those once foreign climbs, now sworn brethren, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

    If I had any criticism of the play, it was only that Henry was a little too much of a nice guy for my tastes but that really is something left to personal preference as I feel he delivered an authentic and valiant portrayl nonetheless. Also – and people ALWAYS seem to miss this – they failed to sieze the joke about masturbation during Falstaff’s final moments.

    Excellent production, easily 4 stars out of 5 by any measure, though your review seems to suggest it is something rather less than that. Not fair. It was a bloody good show and that’s that.


  • Alan Pemberton

    I am given to understand that the Globe’s ‘Henry V’ forms the beginning of the ‘main theatre season..on 7th June 2012…’ from the Globe’s own website-to respond to Abigail Roskison’s poser of whether Henry V is the finale of the festival or the start of the season.  Might I say that I see no worry in the production being an extension of the  patriotic fervour that has been evident in England this year, as Abigail puts it-I think I see where she is coming from but my own taste is for healthy, uplifting patriotism and this choice of ‘Henry V’ appeals to an ‘England’ feeling albeit based on the bellicose feelings of 15th century politics.  Dromgoole’s production kept clear of the trap that could have been fallen into of portrayal of England as a can-do-no-wrong country and it did so by reflecting Shakespeare’s evocation of the horrors of war.  If you’re English you cannot escape England’s history being  part of you.  If you’re a Shakespeare-lover when better to appreciate the bard’s patriotic play than in the year of the Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee?  Contentious points in a way but this is my feeling to put on record together with others.

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