"Once more into the breach"

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tory Historian has not had much time recently to blog but this will be rectified from now on. And the first thing to be written about is the RSC’s production of “Henry V”, seen at the Roundhouse on Saturday.

The RSC’s sequence of the Histories or Chronicles, from Richard to Richard, comes with high praise from two seasons in Stratford and the Roundhouse, nowadays a venue mostly for rock concerts, has been turned into a copy of the Courtyard Theatre. The tickets have been flying out of the box office.

Tory Historian was intending to see the whole series in order in May but found that the “Henry V” of that week-end had sold out. So it had to be seen out of order, which does not matter so much for this play as it is a stand-alone one, despite the tiresome Chorus, who comes in at the end to mute the celebrations of victory and Henry’s marriage to the French Princes Katharine by reminding the audience that in “Henry VI” they will see all that our hero has achieved being frittered away and the country descending into chaos.

If one compares the play with the glorious Olivier film it is the Chorus that makes it much duller. Sadly, he is there in the original and was largely cut out of the film. A tiresome theatrical business and one that is not entirely comprehensible. So far as Tory Historian recalls, “Henry V” is the only play in which Shakespeare used this convention.

Otherwise, the play stands up well to the comparison, not least because of the acting. Geoffrey Streatfield, as Henry, is excellent. We may well be seeing one of the great Shakespearian actors of the generation here and one does not say that lightly.

He is a much more tense Henry than Olivier was, less broody but quicker to give in to his temper, which is only imperfectly controlled. He is also more aware of the reality behind his throne. Made during the war, Olivier’s film could not allow such doubts to be voiced, so the prayer before the battle had to be shortened. The words about not wishing to meet his Maker yet to answer for his father’s and his own crimes against the true King of England were cut out. (After all, a three and a half hour long play cannot be translated into a film easily without extensive cuts.)

Streatfield’s Henry is always aware of how his father came by the crown, which has descended to him. He is reluctant to wear it, leaves it behind several times and when it is brought to him, shies away. When wooing Katharine he very deliberately takes it off and gives it to the lady-in-waiting to hold. This is a strong and heroic character that is, nevertheless, full of worry and doubt. The knowledge that he will die young and not fulfil his potential is so much more poignant.

There is much more to say about the play and the comparisons one can make with that superb film but it will have to be left to another posting. Perhaps, as once before, it will be possible to draw together several strands through several pieces on this blog; and, perhaps, there will be contributions on the subject from our readers.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. The RSC and the RADA website have him down as Geoffrey Streatfeild. His IMDB entry is as Streatfield but they mention that he is Streatfeild in a number of productions.

    One of the points made very clearly is that Henry IV stole the crown, and that he, his son (number V) and his grandson (number VI) have a weaker claim to the throne than Mortimer and his relatives. It is, however, equally clear that Richard II was a very bad king and that Henry V was the only good and strong king in the sequence (1066 and all that, anyone?). When the crown is taken away from Henry VI by Edward, who actually has a more direct claim, a civil war ensues.

    I think this raises an interesting question. Is the most important point to have someone who can actually rule, or is it so disruptive to break the established sequence, that it is harmful even if it allows a hero to come to the throne? What would have happened if Ricard II had not been deposed and killed?

  3. The questions of kingship and legitimacy are at the heart of the sequence and they are never resolved. The pretence that Henry VII (Richmond in Richard III) will combine the two in him is nothing but Tudor propaganda. Henry V is clearly the hero of the cycle though he never manages to rule wisely inside the country as he dies young.

    The whole upheaval is started by Richard II commissioning the murder of Woodstock, his uncle, which is clearly the wrong thing to do and it upsets the order of things. That precipitates further crimes and misdemeanours, of which Henry IV's usurpation of the crown is one of the worst. And so it goes.

    In a sense the problem remains with us, phrased differently. What do people prefer: self-governance or good governance?

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