Horrified fascination

19th September 1997 at 01:00
For director Ron Daniels, Henry V presents contradictions. "It is full of action, a boys' adventure, yet there is a spiritual underpinning. It is interesting to look at the play as a curious national quest for identity. There is a desire for bonding; the nation longs for unity, not to be cynical, and at the same time the notion of war is abhorrent. There is a harking back to a moment in British history where, with the death of Richard II, the moral centre was destroyed."

For Daniels, Henry's position as the son of Henry IV, who seized the throne from Richard, underlies the action. As a young man he was knighted by Richard in Ireland. "He turned his back on his father when he killed Richard, turned his back on the throne and moved into East Cheap. Hal is still trying to find validation - this is one of the thrusts of the play - and at Agincourt he finds that, his right to the throne is just and divinely ordained, though at a terrible cost. When he goes out in the night looking for the companions of East Cheap days it goes sour. He can no longer be one of the guys and there is a poignancy in that. The play is also about a rite of passage, about his 'birthing' as a king. The way he leaves his adolescence behind is much the same as the way the history of Britain 'births' the nation in its moments of pain, its victories and defeats."

The modern references in the production express Daniels's fear of the dangers of nationalism, of the "flaring up of genocidal tendencies and religious ethnicities" to be observed around the world in the 20th century,"the century which should have condemned wars, yet in this century more have died in wars than in any other".

There is unashamed xenophobia in the play: "It's quite clear that Henry's army is an army of invasion. It is not defensive and it practically destroys another culture." But all is not well even within the army: "The sense of internal stress is quite virulent; here is nationhood as a melting pot of profound antagonisms."

The production, with its mixture of periods is, says Daniels, "a fantasy, a poetic statement about war rather than a documentary."

He has chosen Michael Sheen to play Henry for his youth, his gentleness, his mixture of innocence and maturity. "Henry too is surprised to find himself in this position, but he has the charisma to lead men into the killing fields."

Daniels admits the attractions of war, the excitement for young men, "boys going on an amazing emotional adventure and finding themselves in the field of death, while experiencing brotherhood at the same time."

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