The Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival is on this week and next and, as well as helping out as a volunteer steward, I have been getting a rush of culture from it.
Last night I watched a production of Henry V at the Salisbury Playhouse, directed by the Globe’s artistic director Dominic Dromgoole.
I approach these things as I approach most “gritty” TV drama: I kind of think I ought to see it. It was only as I went into the auditorium I saw the notice that said, “First half 1 hour 30 mins. Interval 15 mins. Second half 1 hour 23 mins.” “Three hours,” said another theatregoer behind me, echoing my own thoughts. My partner would definitely not want to have been there.
In Act One Scene Two I was remembering that I find Shakespeare’s history plays a bit tedious, certainly compared to the tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear) which I know far better and find more compelling. That scene of courtly advice; the lengthy contemplations of the relationship between France and England. I felt, not for the first time, that Shakespeare could have done with a better editor when it came to staging. It’s one thing to read the poetry of this verbal jousting; another thing to watch the same point being made several times in different ways by people on a stage.
But the staging was impressive. With one set – basically a rendition of what we imagine the original Globe stage to have looked like – and very few props, the cast and particularly Brid Brennan as the Chorus brought the action to life. The start of the battle of Agincourt was brilliantly wrought by four archers; the battle scene became a piece of music and movement featuring King Harry, Exeter, Westmoreland and someone else. I particularly loved the final bit of stage business, a cross between and a dance and a curtain call representing the marriage of Henry and Catherine.
Jamie Parker (The History Boys, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2) was good in the lead role. He has the brow for a king and a young king at that. Catherine was impossibly beautiful with lovely French. Best of the supporting cast was Brendan O’Hea as a very amusing Captain Fluellen. The musicians were also fabulous and, to me, very “period” playing a couple of wind of brass instruments I’ve never seen before.
As the final applause died away, a lady to my left who hadn’t held back on her opinion of the production at interval time turned to her husband and said, “He did the main speech very well.” I struggle to think which the main speech is in Henry V as there are so many. In Dromgoole’s production last night there was, I think, only one or two moments when Harry was completely alone on the stage giving a soliloquy. It was the eve of the big battle and it was well done, although I found another moment awkward when Henry’s emotion continued on stage as the Chorus began her link.
I gather Salisbury is the last stop in a tour of this production that has taken in Liverpool, Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Bath so far. Dromgoole’s Henry V moves to The Globe theatre in London on 7 June. I’m sure it will be highly rated.