A little touch of Harry in the night turns out to be quite a lot. The Globe’s touring version of Henry V hits town with a blaze of medieval trumpets and an uncut script that gives us almost three hours of classic Bard. All the big hits are here - ‘once more into the breach,’ St. Crispin’s Day speech to his troops on eve of battle and those marvellous chorus narrations in which we are urged to conjure up the battlefields of France using our imagination.
Shakespeare lovers will love the perfect clarity and poetic rhythms of the verse. They and I also revelled in the authenticity of the production. Eschewing the all-too-familiar updated settings, this was a world firmly of the 15th century – gorgeous costumes and thrilling live music from a band of very talented minstrels.
This is a big, loud, vigorous reading of this intriguing play which explores the notions of kingship, military adventure and human foible. There is just a sense though that this big-scale production tries to fit a quart into a pint pot of ale. It seems to want to burst outside the confines of the Arts Theatre’s smallish stage not helped, I thought, by a rather fussy scaffolding set that gave the company too little room for manoeuvre and there was much bursting out into the auditorium. Also there was a questionable decision to keep the house lights on - presumably to emulate the open-air, groundling community feel of the London Globe. The result, I felt, was a loss of focus and the cast had to work hard to create a true sense of magic.
Having said all this, the production is a must-see for all theatre lovers. Jamie Parker is mesmeric as the all-too-human king. He presents us with a gauche, soldier-boy Harry, a reluctant hero with feet of clay and yet someone who possesses that elusive quality of leadership.
The famous scene near the end of the play, when the king tries to woo the French princess Katherine in his terrible French (and ditto her mangled English) was as charming, hilarious and warm hearted as it must have been to Elizabethan audiences. The production was especially strong in the many comedy scenes: Sam Cox was excellent as the clownish Pistol – imagine an extra dishevelled Bill Nighy. Brendan O’Hay was magnetic as the Welsh windbag Fluellen who shows that a little learning is a dangerous and hilarious thing, referring as he does to ‘Alexander the Huge.’
Parker’s reading of that famous scene when, the on the night before Agincourt, the king disguises himself as an ordinary soldier to hear the ordinary man’s view of war, kingship and loyalty, was exceptionally sympathetic and deeply human. This little bit of Harry is worth an awful lot.
Globe Theatre on Tour presents Henry V at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, May 19.