Sound and fury, signifying study

Henry V | RSC, Stratford
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The Independent Culture

The director Edward Hall clearly believes that heights are meant to be scaled and barriers breached, in theatre as in war. British soldiers in grey camouflage gear dash noisily up and down the aisles, some erecting ladders and mounting them for the siege of Harfleur, up in the circle. So many actors pop up throughout the auditorium, waving rifles or overturning dustbins full of tennis balls, that no one feels safe.

The director Edward Hall clearly believes that heights are meant to be scaled and barriers breached, in theatre as in war. British soldiers in grey camouflage gear dash noisily up and down the aisles, some erecting ladders and mounting them for the siege of Harfleur, up in the circle. So many actors pop up throughout the auditorium, waving rifles or overturning dustbins full of tennis balls, that no one feels safe.

Some of Hall's tactics are puzzling: what good can it do the army to haul a double-platformed structure topped with a silent film camera to the lip of the stage? And, in close combat, can the squaddies really vanquish their enemy by whacking what look like huge stuffed golf-bags? .

The motive for some of Hall's other strategies, however, is plain enough: the soldiers punching the air, spraying beer and bashing out on their guitars a hymn of praise to "En-Guh-Land"; the French portrayed as beret-wearing cigarette-smokers who prefer singing to a concertina. ("Thank Heaven For Little Girls" greets patrons as they return after the interval; the French Princess yowls the opening bars of "La Vie en Rose".) The Chorus's text is chopped up so that everyone can have his - or her - own little piece. These expressions of relevance and democratic individualism pose a worrying question: can there be such a thing as a protegé of Michael Bogdanov?

Despite their energy, the play's raucous moments have a studied, routine feel. The lack of passion and surprise cannot be blamed entirely on William Houston, who is neither the tallest nor the most magnetic of kings. But Houston is charming in the play's quieter passages, during which nothing distracts one from the generally high level of verse speaking. These include Henry's night-time tour of the camp, and his courtship of Princess Katherine (Catherine Walker, her foreignness undercut by an English accent so broad that it adds unwitting humour to her complaints about the difficulty of her new language). In the latter, Henry's coarseness is hilariously played off against his embarrassment at realising that there is more to this wooing business than he thought. His confusion is matched in comedy by the stubbornness of Adrian Schiller's Fluellen, resolved to make the sneering Pistol eat his words or die gloriously trying. The clarity and conviction of these duets points up the discordance of the bigger episodes, where rather too much needless effort has gone into making Shakespeare interesting.

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