Shell-shocked Shakespeare

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Henry V William Shakespeare, Watermill Theatre, Newbury.

Camouflaged squaddies sprawl across the stage, open their water-bottles and ask for a muse of fire. And we're into a Henry V intended, says director Edward Hall, to bridge the gap between a 16th-century text and our 20th century understanding. The soldiers - among whom there's been an outbreak of received pronunciation - conjure up the figure of Jamie Glover's warrior-king.

This Henry's smile hides danger - he soon sees off the French tennis ball jibe. But he fails to see the church manipulating him; his question of "right and conscience" carries no sense of impatient cutting through red tape. "He goes to war like Alexander the Great but is still a virgin. At the core he's terribly innocent, nave," says Hall.

The often-cut Southampton traitors scene remains: "We've got to see Henry's world shaken as he learns how appearances and intentions can differ." Only at the end with Kate does he conquer his navety. "The delight of that scene is his agony when wooing her."

Hall believes that "at the end the French king gives Henry his daughter reluctantly and doesn't accept Henry's right to France". Which brings us to the warfare. "The play is neither pro nor anti-war. It's about what happens when war is unleashed. Shakespeare does not judge. He says, 'Here is war. It is very, very violent and a lot of people die.'"

Bloody while there's fighting, war leaves the characters shell-shocked. Triumphalism is avoided. Hall points out that Shakespeare shows only the fringes of Agincourt. The boys in the English camp are killed, Henry orders the French prisoners' throats be cut in reprisal. Even the comedy characters are involved. "Pistol tortures his French prisoner for money" - a brutally played moment which leaves no space for heroism.

Battle itself is stylised with actors thumping baseball bats on punchbags while the victims react as if hit. There's a promenade element taking audiences into the Watermill's gardens. So Harfleur's surrender is announced from the rooftop and Katherine learns her English in a bath over the river Lambourn.

The princess is delicately played by James Tucker. Hall's all-male casting is not only consistent with having the action played by the corps of squaddies. It also casts a light on male views of women and points up what is lost in the male world of violent warfare.

* The Oxford Stage Company's lucid and moving production of Charlotte Keatley's award-winning play, My Mother Said I never Should, will be at the Young Vic until May 31.

Timothy Ramsden

Henry V: until June 7. Tickets: 01635 46044. My Mother, tickets: 0171 928 6363

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