After the Globe Theatre's impressive, international Globe to Globe series, the theatre is now firmly back in England, presenting a nationalist romp through France alongside King Harry.
Perhaps the perfect play for summer 2012, this Henry V is traditional, patriotic and nuanced. In our super-cosmopolitan city, currently distracted by the battle for the Euros, and ahead of the largest influx of foreigners *ever* for the Games, the play gives us the chance to giggle at the stereotypically vain French, the wordy Welsh, feisty Irish and the incomprehensible Scots. Henry V presents an England willing to come together (some begrudgingly, some willingly) to fight for what they believe to be rightfully theirs.
In the nature-lit "wooden O", this is a play which draws the audience in from the very start. A hugely expressive Brid Brennan guides us through the action as our "muse of fire"-inspired Chorus. The company gesture and nod at the audience throughout, patting young men on the arm, inviting us in. Thus we are brought into the conflict, taught to fear, rallied to fight. And, oh, how we’re rallied: is there any greater motivational speech than Shakespeare’s Henry makes before battle? The power of those words, delivered front and straight into the intimate Globe, is spellbinding. When our lovely leader cries "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!" some audience members around us, straining forward on the very edges of their seats, even joined in. Then looked nervously at their neighbours – we were s’posed to shout back, weren’t we?
If the play raises tricky questions about the glorification of war, director Dominic Dromgoole sweeps these under the boards, focusing instead on the human impact of conflict. These men are physically fragile: one has a bloodied foot, others perform stretches ahead of the battle; sore wrists are rubbed; when heads are knocked, they bleed.
And at the centre of these nods to bodily frailty is the most human character of all. Jamie Parker's Henry is a masterful creation, balancing a warrior king and a conscience-stricken leader. Parker speaks the Shakespearean verse like it's his mother tongue – sweeping the spectrum from matter-of-fact politicking to rallying war cry, from gentle joking to powerful fury. His Henry displays all the complexities of Shakespeare's character: part motivational speaker, part soldier, part humble, part regal; wholly real.
With Parker at the lead, this play presents a great package. The sheer variety of tone – comic wordplay, rousing speeches, playful courtship and bloody battles – create a great evening's entertainment. It’s safe, but stirring; after weeks of linguistic somersaulting at the Globe, Shakespeare’s own incredible verses shine once more.
Henry V plays at Shakespeare's Globe, New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, SE1 9DT until 26 August. Tickets cost between £5 and £39. Visit www.shakespearesglobe.com/henry-v to find out more.
Photos by John Haynes