Recently I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Hartford Stage Company; I found it satisfactory though not exemplary. Because I had not read the play since college, I watched the rendition on DVD by Kenneth Branagh. It was bloodier than I had remembered, and modern movie techniques allowed for a great deal of violence and agony—enough, I thought, to almost overwhelm the beautiful language. A few days ago I watched the Laurence Olivier version, which was filmed in 1944, with the kinds of sets that reflected the war shortages experienced in England, and the kinds of somewhat melodramatic costumes and makeup that were more prevalent in that era. In fact, Olivier’s Henry V was one of the first to be recorded on film and the first, I believe, to be recorded in technicolor.
Both Branagh and Olivier adapted the original text, and directed the play, in addition to performing the starring role. What a huge effort, but what skillful work on both their parts. Olivier in particular employed many clever and, until that time, unique innovations. It’s easy to see why the heroic plot appealed to both men—but what a difference in tone each one still produces!
Olivier was asked by the British government to tackle the play as a patriotic endeavor, at a time when Britons needed the idea of England, victorious though outnumbered, to be reinforced. World War II was already waning, and victory was becoming more than a dream. It was a good time to show King Henry as a conquering hero—though in the play it is France that is conquered and not Nazi Germany, a reminder that in those days the royal houses of France and England were linked to some degree and the competition between them was immense.
So although there are battle scenes in Olivier’s version, they are sublimated to other interests.
Branagh, on the other hand, was working in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War, and was at pains to show how devastating war would always be, no matter what the circumstances. His version has a more bitter tone somehow, with a great deal of realistic battlefield footage. Of course his own starring performance is superb, but the overall result of the play in this version is an impression of carnage, and the final scenes as Henry woos Katherine seem not to quite fit what has gone before. They seem too cute and funny.
The Hartford Stage version of the play was produced in nondescript modern dress, with a small cast and many actors playing multiple parts. It was performed in the round, and naturally could not stage huge battle scenes, or even more than minimal sets. There was a great deal of dashing up and down the aisles, and it was sometimes hard to hear, since theater in the round forces actors to speak with their backs to some part of the audience all the time. The Hartford Stage production therefore lacked the grandeur of the movie versions, and also the grandeur of Henry V performed on a larger stage. Needless to say, the actor who played the king didn’t have the eloquence or the commanding presence of either Olivier or Branagh. Nevertheless—what an ambitious effort!
These three renditions of Henry V are interesting in their juxtaposition. Many if not most of Shakespeare’s plays have needed to be cut in order to be produced on stage or in movies that modern audiences could absorb. In addition to the editing done ahead of time, there are decisions about how to film the action, how to have the various actors move and speak, the setting in both time and space, and the costumes. The versatility of most of the plays Shakespeare wrote is amazing, although the comedies may not be as accessible in that sense as the histories or tragedies.
Shakespeare himself had to be constantly aware of his own political situation, living as he did during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. At that time Ireland was perceived to be an enemy land of wild barbarians, and Elizabeth’s treasury was being depleted as her armies strove, often unsuccessfully, to bring their version of civilization to the hinterlands. Spain was a threat as well. Everyone was on edge, and even playwrights were subject to government harassment. I understand, however, that the play was enormously popular in 1600, and I believe has been so ever since. That popularity in many different eras speaks to its universality.
For those of us who are not Shakespeare scholars, a play like Henry V isn’t always easy to grasp. Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, and even Hamlet offer fairly straightforward stories of characters who are complex and can be interpreted differently by different actors and directors, but are still understandable. Nevertheless, even an amateur Shakespeare lover can benefit enormously from the effort it takes to puzzle out meanings from something written more than 400 years ago. It’s wonderful that our local high school has just staged Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a charming performance entirely suitable for teenagers. What a meaningful experience for the lucky students who were in the play, or observing the play, to have! Yes, the language is difficult for modern teenagers not trained in elocution, but the introduction to Shakespeare may be an introduction to a lifelong pleasure.