The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

King Of Bloke & Bird

The 2006 BBC Shakespeare review odyssey continues...


Good but not great. Henry V is a simple, straightforward play. It's quite fast-paced, for the first four acts at least, easy-to-follow, and builds to a satisfying finish. But there's not that much to it, to be honest. It's not as plot-driven as the Henry VI's or as thrilling as Richard III, and it doesn't have the character of the Henry IVs or the thematic depth that people claim to exist in Richard II.

It's the ideal Shakespeare for Schools, really. Nothing too convoluted, nothing too implausible. A logical unfolding of events, all of the characters are quite 'gettable' and most of the big speeches are clearly about something. But did Shakespeare sit down with Profound Things To Say About The Human Condition? Not really. Bit of an off-day on the whole Human Condition bag of nuts. Not really any themes. Not much symbolism. Not much subtext. Not much of a point to it at all, really.

But it's effective, crowd-pleasing fun and lots and lots of Garlic-munching baguette-botherers die. Which I suppose is all the point it needs.

But, weirdly, it has this reputation for being fantastic. You know, it's the one with the siege of Harfluer and the battle of Agincourt. 'Once more unto the breach' and 'We few, few happy few'. And these are good bits - act III in particular has some wonderful stuff in it - but so much of it is just so-so. You get the sense that Mr S has kind of had enough of doing historicals - history's plots just aren't stimulating enough.

One conspicuous difficulty Mr S had when he was booting up ye olde worde proceffor was actor unavailability. He had created this vehicle for Will Kempe, and now Kempe had fucked off, doing a Morris dance from London to Norwich like some sort of random git. It gives you some idea of how much Kempe had made Falstaff his own that re-casting wasn't an option. So, instead, Shakespeare kills him off off-stage in Act II.

There's nothing wrong with this in itself. But clearly it happened when he was working out story beats at the synopsis stage, Mr S when had been planning on having Falstaff as a fixture in Henry V. So the play feels oddly lacking; there is a hole at the centre of it, and the hole is in the shape of an obese man in an amusingly large hat. Mr S tries to write around the problem, by building up Pistol's role as a surrogate Falstaff, but Pistol just isn't as interesting as a character. He's just sort of there, being disappointing, like Ronnie Corbett without Ronnie Barker. I mean, not to knock the Corbster but if you're expecting Norman Stanley Fletcher you don't want Timothy Lumsden.

Moving on, the best way I can express the lack of interesting things in this play is for you to see how long this review is compared to the ones for As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing or the Henry IVs. There just isn't that much to say, I'm afraid.

What's unusual about this play is that each act is introduced by a 'Chorus' who obsequiously asks the audience to forgive the limitations of theatre and to use their imaginations to create horses, battlefields, castles and so forth. I don't mind this device. His speeches are evocative and rich and fire up the imagination. And I quite like the bit at the end where he slips in a quick plug for Henry VI (which picks up the thread about the guys Henry V has executed in Act II, recasting it as the inciting incident for the War of the Roses).

The story? Well, Henry V is King, and has promised his father on his death-bed (his father's death-bed, not his own, obviously) to invade France. He's consulted his lawyers and they assure him that technically he owns France already, so it's legit. However, he needs some sort of pretext with which to declare war. Fortunately one makes itself apparent when the French King sends king Henry a box of tennis balls.

'Tennis balls!' cries Henry. 'That is a slur against our nation's honour! We must go to war!'

I mean, you may think the whole dodgy dossier thing was a little on the flimsy side, but to go to war over gifted sporting items...

Anyway, Henry V memos the King of France telling him where he can stick his tennis balls, though, being French, the King of France probably has a baguette up there already.

Meanwhile at the Boar's Head Tavern, Eastcheap, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol convene, where Mistress Quickly informs them that Falstaff is on his death-bed. She pops off-stage. She pops back on. 'He's dead!' That is all there is to it. Even the joke about Bardolph using his ruddy face to 'warm' Falstaff's bottom feels perfunctory. That said, there's some amusement to be had when Mistress Quickly tries to eulogise Falstaff's last words, which seem to have been mainly swearing at her and asking for beer.

Act II, and the French King has bribed some English Lords to assassinate their monarch. Before anything interesting can happen, the King finds out, and gives the Lords a lecture on the quality of mercy before having them all executed. Nice guy, Harry. Meanwhile the French King is rallying his troops, ordering them to pull their fingers out and while they're at it to take out the baguettes too.

Act III arrives hot on the heels of Act II... oh, have I mentioned the actors yet? Not many famous faces this week, I'm afraid. It took me about ten minutes to work out where I had seen Trevor Baxter before (BLASPHEMY – 2014 JONNY). Julian Glover's in this, playing a French Lord or something - this could well have been his next job after Scaroth - and alongside him is Carl Forgoine, who was in a couple of Doctor Whos. And finally for fans of A Hard Day's Night, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and what many consider the Golden Age of Grange Hill, there’s Anna Quayle. I wonder what happened to her.

As I was saying Act III and we kick off with the whole 'Once more unto the breach' speech. Stirring stuff, though it is slightly disquieting the number of sci-fi titles that crop up in these speeches. My own problem, I know, but when Henry V gets to 'lend the eye a terrible aspect' all I can think of is that Paul Darrow book. I suspect this problem is going to get even worse when I get to Hamlet, where there are whole speeches that comprise of nothing but Original Series Star Trek episode titles.

Anyway it goes something like:

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more
Or close the wall up with our English dead
The game's afoot: express yourself!
Create the space, you know you can win,
Don't give up the chase, beat the man
Take him on, never give up, it's one on one"

Rousing stuff indeed.

Thing is, though, although this play is all about how great the English are, there were in fact some Welsh, Irish and Scotch people in our army too (at the back). Obviously their valuable contribution also needs to be commemorated. Shakespeare does this by writing what must be the most nationally stereotyped characters in history (if Welsh counts as a nation).

I'm not joking. The Welshman is called Fluellen (after Pwllheli?), and is constantly saying 'look you' and 'isn't it'. He even ends his emails with 'Hooray! Marvellous!', that's how flaming Welsh he is. He digs mines and wears a leek in his hat (I am not exaggerating, a literal leek in his literal hat) and spends half a scene arguing that Alexander the Great was probably a Monmouth boy. He's short-tempered, hot-blooded but prone to extreme, spontaneous sentimentality. His inclusion is not a tribute to the Welsh, but a point and laugh.

The Irishman isn't much better. MacMorris he's called, he's accompanied by violin jig music, and he's talks loike dis:

'By Chrish la, tish ill done, the work ish give over... ol tish ill done, tish ill done, by my hand, tish ill done! Tiddly-widdly-piddly and moi's a Guiness!'

As you can see, Mr S is writing phonetically. I wonder can you guess the nationality of Officer Jamie:

'By the mess, ere theise eyes of mine take themselves to slamber aile de gud service, or aile lig i'the grund for it; ay, or go to death, for we're al dooooooooooooooooomed!'

Jesus christ, it's fucking Mind Your Language! Still, at least you can understand the joke, unlike in Merry arsing Wives of f*cking Windsor.

National stereotyping aside, the stage switches to France and a scene, mind-bogglingly, almost entirely conducted in French.

Oh god, I remember the Kenneth Branagh version of this, it was Emma Thompson and I don't know INEVITABLY Imelda Staunton bouncing about on a bed. Which reminds me. I caught Kenneth Branagh's version of Love's Labour's Lost last week. Or, to give it its full title, Kenneth Branagh's CALAMITOUS version of Love's Labour's Lost. I mean, to be fair, it's a pretty bad play to begin with, but he somehow manages to make it worse. Firstly, he cuts out about two-thirds of the play (which is no loss) to concentrate on the 'love stories', and he decides to make it a musical - a sort of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers but with only four of each. However, what he hadn't reckoned with was the insufferable smugness he would lend to the proceedings, along with my least favourite actor, REDACTED. And then - and then! - having so disastrously padded-out the play with song and dance numbers, in post-production he cuts out the remaining third of the play (again, no great loss) so the end result is a film of about 80 minutes, of which about 10 is your actual Shakespeare, 5 minutes is cod-pathé newsreel explaining the story (and covering all the cut scenes) and 65 minutes is just the most self-indulgent smarmy luvvie tripe that has ever had the misfortune to be committed to celluloid. British Film Industry, best in the world.

Anyway, the scene concerns French princess Katherine learning to speak English. Now, there are probably some amusing bilingual puns in this bit about 'chin' meaning something rude in French. I don't know. I don't f*cking care. It's in French. The subtitles are in French. What's is this, Tricolour book 3? Are we in La Rochelle buying a mouse? No we are not! MAKE THE FRENCH END NOW!

And excuse me for wearing my large, feathered pedant's hat but why is she learning English? Is she expecting the French to lose? As far as she's concerned, the English haven't a hope, she doesn't want them to win. I mean, it's not as bad as BBC News switching to the guy with the torch after 30,000 people have vanished from the Olympic stadium, but it's still what I believe is termed a 'blooper' or a 'gaffe'.

Next, Bardolph is written out of the play, also off-stage. He's been robbing churches, and Henry gives the order for him to be executed. Nice guy, Harry. Harsh but fair. In fact, the reason why Henry isn't as interesting a character as he was in the previous two plays is because he's so bleeding perfect all the time. He's like an ideal of Kinghood - the first, and only, time we'll get to see such a thing, so I suppose it's a novelty.

After that we come to an actual good bit, Act IV. It's a 'little bit of Harry in the night' which sounds like REDACTED but is in fact about Henry chatting to his troops incognito on the eve of the great battle.

This is all terrific. There's a real sense of a big ominous thing looming in the air over everybody's heads, all the soldiers huddled in dug-outs around fires, not sure if they're going to make it through the day, or ever see their loved ones again. It's the sort of atmosphere where you just know someone is going to start playing the harmonica, only to be cut off with a dull clang as somebody hits them over the head with a spade.

And the soldiers are scared. They're up against the French, who are a fearsome sight, with their stripy jumpers, big moustaches and bicycle baskets full of baguettes. And that's just the women. (Sometimes I make jokes that I don't understand, sorry)

Henry first bumps into Pistol, who doesn't recognise him, and goes on to meet some average soldiers, Court, Bates and Williams. Now, what makes this scene brilliant is not just the way it echoes the bits in the Henry IV's where Henry was in disguise, the way it shows that he has never lost his common touch, but the way it cuts through and really describes the fear, the absolute terror, that is war.

I mean, this play is sometimes held up to romanticise 'war'. It doesn't do that. 'Battles' are romantic - they are fast-moving, dramatic and definitive, with lots of dancing. 'War' is a very boring drawn-out process where soldiers return home only to discover no-one is particularly interested in hearing their war-stories.

The argument Henry has with the soldiers is just perfect; the soldiers basically say that if they die, it's the King's fault, because he ordered them to fight. Henry convinces them otherwise - though he’s really trying to convince himself. Cue a long, but compelling, soliloquy on the subject of rulers taking responsibility for sending people to war, and having to make the awful decisions that no-one else wants to make, and having to go on with that on their consciences. Okay, so he does drift off into Greek myth at one point, but he makes the point loud and clear - the King, like any ruler, is an ordinary man, and if he has greatness, it is not in the pomp and ceremony of his position but in carrying the burden of his responsibility to his subjects.

And this is relevant to modern audiences I think, because you have all those idiots out there who thought that Tony Blair took us to war glibly or cynically or without conscience. Now, irrespective of the rights and wrongs, it is moronic - totally moronic - to think that might be the case. He's the guy that sends the letters of commiseration, he’s the one that gets the letters from the widows, he's visible, he’s the one who has to take two similar-looking evils and choose whichever one might be the lesser, and live with the consequences of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't decision. I mean, people take the piss out of him saying he prayed before sending our soldiers to war, but I'm not religious and I'd f*cking pray my arse off in that situation.

Anyway, Shakey gets that all across beautifully in this big, lovely speech. And then, all too soon, it's the morning of the battle, and word comes through that the English are outnumbered. They are in serious deep shit. But never mind that, says the King - the less of us there are, the more glory we shall get when we win! The play is really kicking into gear... and it's time for a rousing speech! Hurrah!

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here!
So many jokes, so many sneers
But all those oh-so-nears wear you down, through the years
But I still see that tackle by Moore and when Linekar scored
Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing...

It's Crispin's day, it's Crispin's day, it's Crispin's
Agincourt's coming home"

And, of course, we win. The final score is, quite astonishingly;

FRANCE: 10,000 dead

ENGLAND: 25 dead

What Mr S fails to mention, however, is the crucial role that The Longbow played in England's victory. If you want to know all about this, ask SimonGuerrier. And of course, as we all know, it's supposedly where we get the 'v' sign from though that may be apocryphal.

The battle stuff isn't, to be honest, as well-done as in Henry IV Part One, because there's not enough fighting, basically. Pistol has a fight with a French soldier (and can I just stop here and ask why SOME of the French characters speak French and others speak English? It doesn't make sense. I mean, I don't care it doesn't make sense, it doesn't matter, it's just annoying when they speak French because people speaking French is annoying ) and the French soldier begs for mercy in French... which again, probably leads to some amusing bilingual puns as Pistol and Boy try to explain to him in mangled pidgin French that they will spare his life if he'll hand over his wallet.

Then someone fires an arrow into the air with a longbow and, with a clump the aforementioned mangled pigeon falls to earth.

There's also a rather dull bit with the Welsh bloke turning up again, to be humiliated by King Henry, because frankly there's nothing funnier than a Welshman.

And that's it. Loads of bodies everywhere. Loads of blood-stained baguettes everywhere. Great play, time to go home, if we hurry we might be back in time for Lost...

What do you mean, there's another act?

Oh dear god. Act V.

And this is where it all falls to bits.

If you ever go and see this play at the theatre, leave at the end of Act IV. Please. I promise you, you will not be missing anything. You won't have to queue for the loos and you'll get a clear run out of the car park. It'll be worth it.

Because it is interminable! After all the excitement of Agincourt, we get an okay-ish scene where Pistol returns home, only to find that Mistress Quickly has died (of venereal disease? Pistol mentions his 'rendez-vous being cut off'?), and then Pistol has a little 'I'm reviewing, the sit-u-ation' moment where he decides to opt for a life of crime. But then...

French bloke: Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah baguettes blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah for about A F*CKING HOUR

And then, by way of a climax - ha! - we get King Henry chatting up Princess Katherine (you remember, the one who was learning to, how you say, speak the Engleesh). Again we get phoney phonetic dialogue:

'Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell vat is - "like me"'

Imagine, if you will, Apocalypse Now followed by the scoring for Eurovision. That is what the end of Henry V is like. It just goes on and on and on, with King Henry going all around the houses as he tries to explain to Katherine how much he fancies her, and Katherine not understanding a word of it in a silly, girly French accent. I mean, it's all very charming, but, y’know, Lost is on.

Eventually the audience have picked up longbows and are about to fire baguettes at the actors, so the King and Katherine have a snog, the music swells up into a fanfare and, at last, it's the enWHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE'S MORE?

French bloke: Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah garlic blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

Okay, they asked for it. Ready, take aim... FIRE! blah blah blah blah blah blah

Next up: Twelfth Night

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