Chorus line

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Henry V Northern Broadsides

Barrie Rutter, the director of Northern Broadsides, the company which presents Shakespeare in the accents of Yorkshire, is to play Chorus in his own production of Henry V. His very first speech, as Prologue, introduces a recurrent theme - the theatricality of the play. The audience is asked to imagine horses, soldiers, the battle of Agincourt and the fields of France crammed within the "wooden O" of the Elizabethan theatre.

Rutter's touring production will have a set which echoes this shape, but the theatricality of the play goes deeper than the comments of Chorus.

Henry, described as "the star of England" in the Epilogue and traditionally the ideal of medieval kingship, has had to put on an act several times to rally his troops, to keep up patriotic and warlike spirits, sometimes in unpromising circumstances. "The irony of the first war scene is that England is in retreat. That's an awful speech before Harfleur, 'Once more unto the breach,' but he's got to get the lads back on side." This comes at the beginning of Act III and follows immediately on Churus's lines: "Still be kind.And eke out our performance with your mind."

"There is no doubt", says Rutter, "that war is important in the play - the word 'warlike' occurs in the fifth line - but you have to look at the whole play." For Rutter, it is about humanity in all its muddle. Henry himself both turns his back on common war practices of the time, such as allowing the aristocrats to benefit from the system of accepting ransom for rich nobles, but also, in anger, coldly orders the killing of all the French prisoners after the boys in the English baggage train have been murdered.

Religion, the grip of what Rutter calls "the church militant of 400 years ago", is also very important throughout the play. Henry prays for help before battle and thanks God for English success. The singing of the Te Deum after Agincourt is often very moving and, Rutter promises, will be in his production, especially as it reverberates around the Viaduct Theatre in the converted carpet factory which is Dean Clough.

The possible origin of all those Englishman, Irishman, Welshman and Scot jokes may well be in this play. There is fun to be had, especially at the expense of leek-guzzling Fluellen, which might make some modern audiences cringe, but Rutter remains unapologetic: "It's Shakespeare's joke. It's not up to me to censor him." Rutter is alive to subtle ironies too. At the opening of Act II, Chorus begins his speech: "Now all the youth of England are on fire...", but this is follwed by a scene set in East Cheap featuring some of the king's drinking companions from his dissolute youth, "four of the most broken-down, pox-ridden people you could imagine".

Dean Clough, Halifax, until March 8, then touring in rep with Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness until June. Tel: 01422 369704 www.northern-broadsides.co.uk

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