NOVEMBER 2007  
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French aristocrats, resplendent in expensive silks and breasted in finest golden armour, hang perilously over the field of battle from circus trapezes. Below, the ranks of 'British' soldiery scurry from the safety of their stage-trapdoor access points, ducking and diving as each approaching cannon-shot explodes in the near-distance. Swiftly-erected scaling ladders rise out of their defensive positions. Suddenly, the battle commences in earnest; from high up in the Courtyard Theatre, white paper ticker-tapes are hurled, unfurling in elegant arcs as they fall like the shafts of arrows, criss-crossing the action and the bloody bodies below. Agincourt, that legendary battle of Tudor-chronicle glory, has begun. Agincourt, when the tiny, sick 'band of brothers' take on the massed forces of the French, only to emerge, after a dust and blood-strewn day, victorious. This imagery sets the scene of Michael Boyd's final foray into the Shakespeare 'Histories' with Henry V.

For sheer entertainment value, there is nothing to beat the rabble-rousing jingoism of Henry V. Boyd's new production is no less jingoistic in its military pride, with its humorous xenophobic portrayal of the effete French nobility, or its base exploration of the social divide between the thieving English soldiers and their aristocratic leaders. How interesting, then, that, in the hands of Geoffrey Streatfield, Henry loses none of his 'Prince Hal' naughtiness, none of his wayward ways. Streatfield plays Henry with such throwaway nonchalance it is, at times, hard to believe the nation would trust his apparent estuary-speak ordinariness on the field of battle.

This is not to say that Streatfield's interesting interpretation jars. When wooing the defeated Princess of France, Lady Katherine (beautifully portrayed by Alexia Healy), Streatfield engages in such witty banter that the character comes alive with sexual and sensual delight. Both victorious king and lustful conquest gently sway in a dance of seduction where neither touch, but the electricity conjured by their performances and by Shakespeare's delicious dialogue send sparks into the audience.

This production never fails to delight. From the moment Geoffrey Freshwater as the Archbishop of Canterbury embarks on his apparently half-remembered catalogue of reasons why Henry should invade France, we know this Henry V will be played for laughs. Freshwater's delivery is so well-timed, relishing as it does the mundanity of his genealogical display. Likewise, the short but memorable returns of Maureen Beattie's Mistress Quickly, Julius D'Silva's Bardolph, Keith Dunphy's Nym and Nicholas Asbury's homicidal Pistol, all people the play with comic clarity and purpose.

When in France, we are introduced to the bombastic Captain Fluellen. For Jonathan Slinger, applauded for his Richard III in the season, this is a welcome change, providing the opportunity to present yet another facet of this fascinating actor's comic skill. Fluellen personifies the bookish Tudor aficionado of the recently-published Chronicle Histories, those collections of anecdote and myth, bound up with historical 'fact', that set the bedrock of our collective cultural identities. Fluellen fights 'by the book', expresses his allegiance 'by the book', loves his 'Welsh-Prince' king 'by the book'. Slinger's rendition is warmly received.

Of course, there have to be the baddies. Luckily for the British fighting in France, they are met by a French army led by the Dauphin, a vain fop played wonderfully by John Mackay, whose every thrust of his groin, every puerile quip about the 'beauty' of is horse and the glory of his manhood, being greeted by the delighted sniggers of young and old alike. This is an enemy worthy our Francophobic disdain.

Yet again, the music of James Jones and John Woolf plays such an important part in setting atmosphere and tone. Yet again, the rusting tower of the Courtyard backdrop is perfectly suited to this muddy, rusty-battlefield play. Yet again, Boyd has directed a production which effortlessly encapsulates the very essence of a Shakespearean 'history play', transposing its message to the twenty-first century without imposing an anachronism which muddies the waters of comprehension. Great fun.

Kevin Quarmby © 2007