Theatre director Nicholas Hytner tells Heather Neill why the warrior king is still a contemporary figure.
Henry V. By William Shakespeare. National Theatre, London.
A charismatic leader takes Britain into war on grounds that are questionable under international law. Sound familiar? Henry V could scarcely be more topical, yet its latest director, Nicholas Hytner, who has chosen this for his first production as artistic director at the National Theatre, says that that is nothing new.
"It has always seemed to be about the war that has just happened or is in the offing. It has tended to reflect the temper of the times. I intend only to cut for length - uncut it would be four hours long - but a completely uninflected, neutral production is impossible."
Others have made the play say what they wished. For his celebrated, patriotic, war-time film, Laurence Olivier removed everything that showed the English or Henry in a bad light. Kenneth Branagh cut Henry's order to murder the French prisoners. "It's a war crime", Hytner says unequivocally.
"Whether he does it for purely pragmatic reasons or partly for emotional ones it is hard for me and contemporary actors to know; we have to make a guess." He has two military advisers on hand, ex-paras, "our chief source for the visceral impact of battle," but whatever the conclusions reached about the turbulence of battle, the complexities of Henry's character can only be explored in rehearsal.
Hytner says: "He is unpredictable, volatile, contradictory. I think he is genuinely pious, but have you noticed how unbelievably often he plays the trick of blaming everybody else?
"He makes those amazing rallying speeches, has enormous charm and a tremendous ability to motivate - I hadn't taken on board before just how dismal things were for him the night before Agincourt - but he is still the same person who spent his youth womanising and getting into pub brawls. He is insulted by Williams and it doesn't seem psychologically odd to me that, after an enormous victory, he goes to great lengths to get his own back.
Besides, the episode humanises war, cuts it down to size.
"It is my hunch that Shakespeare set out to write a hit for his company - there were three other contemporary Henry V plays - but he was too good a playwright to pull off anything so simple. He couldn't help seeing things from all points of view."
The presence of Fluellin, Jamy and Macmorris shows, says Hytner, that Shakespeare is thinking that "Britain is not a homogeneous whole, but is insisting on its racial variety. It is essential that Henry V, a play about Britain at the National Theatre, reflects the nation to whom it is playing". Henry is played by black actor Adrian Lester (pictured above).
The production will be staged in modern dress with a female Chorus, played by Penny Downie. She is "a less male, less aggressive presence, detached from the play, but with a very firm view of what Henry V's story is. The fact that what she is telling you is undercut by the play itself is part of its fabric. We will see her just start to take on board that what the audience is seeing is not what she was expecting."
The scene in which the Princess of France receives a language lesson from her companion should not, says Hytner, be seen as comic. "The idea that this woman has to learn English because she is a negotiating chip immediately after the rape of Harfleur, and will be forced to marry the leader of the occupying force, is not funny. It's always worth taking Shakespeare at face value. This is not a funny play - although there are, of course, a lot of laughs because that is the kind of playwright Shakespeare is."
Henry V is part of the Travelex pound;10 season (two-thirds of seats for pound;10) in the Olivier Theatre. Tickets: 020 7452 3000