The Globe Theatre’s summer production of Henry V is dynamic and engrossing. Jamie Parker, who so wonderfully played Prince Hal in last year’s Globe offerings of 1 & 2 Henry IV,reprises his role as the newly crowned King Henry V. It is wonderful to see his progression from prodigal son to war hero (having seen last year’s plays as part of the Shakespeare’s Globe Cinema series), and Parker plays the young king with grace, but still a mischievous sense of humor. Despite the disparity between Olivier’s lofty king and Branagh’s earthy monarch, Parker still makes the role uniquely his own. Despite the playbill’s argument for the “bipolar interpretation” of King Henry, Parker’s Harry is a good natured and playful chap who just tries his hardest to do the right thing, while having to make difficult decisions. He is privileged and spoiled, but not Machiavellian.
He plays the role with exuberance, but not restraint, as we see that his king wears his heart upon his sleeve. He is a bit sentimental, silently wiping away tears at both the execution of his disloyal nobles and of his old drinking buddy Bardolph. He openly weeps as he carries the body of the murdered Boy. He flirts with Katherine of France and then acts proper as her father enters the chamber. He mocks yet respects Fluellen and he honestly feels for the common soldier Williams, even as he vehemently defends the difficult decisions of a ruler. Parker, as Harry, reminded me of other noble Harrys, both the young and promising Henry VIII (the pre-Reformation Henry, of course) and also the current playboy/jester/soldier Prince Harry. Like these other Harrys, Parker’s King is charismatic, charming, handsome, funny, and cocky. Parker continuously breaks the fourth wall, engaging with the audience and flirting as much with—if not more so—the groundlings as with his future wife..
This boyish monarch has his failings—the multiple executions and his temper, as two examples—and Parker cannot deliver the St. Crispin’s day speech with the urgency necessary to convey the gravity of their underdog situation. On the other hand, his delivery of the “Once more to the breach” speech moved me to tears. With battering rams swinging in the background and smoke emerging from Harfleur’s walls, Parker walks onstage alone, bloodied, and dirty. Directly addressing the audience, even grasping the hand of a groundling (during the “yeoman” line), he compels the audience to join in battle, even pausing during his battle cry for a call-and-response: “Cry ‘God for Harry (God for Harry), England (England), and St. George (and St. George)!’”
Dominic Dromgoole’s direction is fantastic and he makes interesting choices for the doubling (and tripling) of roles. Falstaff’s Boy and Princess Katherine are both played with sweetness and grace by Olivia Ross. David Hargreaves does triple duty as Sir Thomas Erpingham, but more interestingly (and incongruously) as France and Nym. In a similar vein, Brid Brennan plays the both the Chorus and the French Queen. (Bizarrely, Brennan’s Chorus is a serving woman but not for any obvious reason. She doesn’t seem to represent the plight of war widows or other women outside of the courtly, martial, and/or patriarchal orders). Finally, the treacherous English nobles all also reappear (post-execution) as French nobles.
Besides Parker’s stellar and complex performance, there are several strong supporting performances. Sam Cox is pitch perfect as Pistol (complete with his own catchphrase and accompanying dirty gesture), while Brendan O’Hara is a blustering and loyal Fluellen, and Chris Starkie is wonderful in his many roles, but especially his incoherent Captain Jamy and his worried Williams.
The simple set design works as well for the royal courts, the battlefield, and the Boar’s Head Tavern, but none of that really quite matters when standing in the “wooden O” during the Prologue:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
This most patriotic of English history plays is ideal as the final Globe to Globe production of the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival. “We few, we happy few” are those who could see this wonderful play.