In a season commemorating the centenary of its theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is offering a panoply of Henrys - Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II and Henry V, with The Merry Wives of Windsor scheduled to join the repertory in August. The first three are presented as if they were one play, with one director, Terry Hands,one designer and the same actors playing the revolving cast of characters. The linchpin of the season, and the major event of the summer at Stratford, is the company's rousingly direct production of Henry V, in which Alan Howard gives a titanic, king-size portrayal in the title role. The performance is convincing evidence that Howard - known to American audiences largely for his double role as Oberon and Theseus in Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream - belongs in the highest rank of young English stage actors.
Howard's Henry is a man of heroic valor, a self-made commander of men (and wooer of women) who has willed himself to play a role. Putting on battle dress for Agincourt, he measures himself against himself, as if looking in an imaginary mirror. The armor fits but does the badge of office? We feel the slight hesitation, the lingering memory that it was only a few years (and one play ago) that he was roistering with his merry comrade-in-arms, Falstaff.
For Howard this is a clearly conceived and beautifully executed performance, one that leads naturally from Part I through the triumph at Agincourt. This Henry V can stand on its own, but to get the full measure and conviction of Howard's Henry, one should see the three plays and follow the actor's progression in the role.(Plans are under way to bring all three to the Brooklyn Academy next season.)
In Part I Howard is a hedonistic Hal, with a secret purpose. He will play the wastrel so well that he will deceive his countrymen; the slumberer, he vows, will become a surprising and exciting king. Meanwhile he willl enjoy the pretense, the rambunctious display of his wit and youth. When Hal pretends to be his father to Falstaff's impersonation of Hal, Howard gives us an exact sardonic duplication of the whining, petulant Henry IV of Emrys James. Hal rises to battle with Hotspur (a spark-sizzling duel with Stuart Wilson), but then in Part II appears to sink into lassitude, as if the fun had gone out of the sport and the character were marking time until his coronation.
Part II is Hal at sea. In a sense he has not 'recovered' from his fight with Hotspur; he cannot completely return to his former life. Finally, when his father is dying and Hal - thinking that he has actually died - tries on the crown, it fits. Wearing the crown, Hal becomes majestic. Being King is the key to Henry V. He thinks as a king and therefore he is King.
The success or failure of each production is due largely to the performance of the actor playing the character that ccarries the individual play. Henry V belongs firmly to Howard and it towers over the other productions. Parts I and II lodge less securely in any single personality, although, inevitably, Part I tilts to Henry IV and Part II to Falstaff. Unfortunately, the RSC has saddled itself with a weak Henry IV (Emrys James) and a shallow Falstaff (Brewster Mason), both of whom soon become tiresome company.
James is unregal. He seems more like a clerk than a king. He lacks fiber, for which he tries to compensate with histrionics, punctuating his p's and underscoring his emotions. In Henry V James returns as the Chorus, a much more effective performance than his Henry IV in that it calls for less evident 'acting'. Mason is a bulky, voluminous man with a deep bass voice, Falstaffian in dimension but not in demeanour. He blunts the character's appetites and enthusiasms, making him seem more a friendly codger than a ribald jouster in bar and boudoir. By the end of Part II, Hal has an additional reason to jettison him: he is a bore.
In the large and, to some extent, overused cast there are a number of other outstanding performances, most of them by Trevor Peacock. This versatile actor is Hal's lusty sidekick Poins, that loyal pedant, Captain Fluellen, and, most amusingly, the decrepit Silence, who is so stooped that his nose seems pressed against his toes. Mention should also be made of the lovely Ludmila Mikaël, on loan from the Comédie Française, as Katharine of France ("I cannot speak your England," she confides to Henry), who is a perfect match for Howard.
Terry Hands's staging is uncluttered and unmannered - the sparest scenery for Part I, a large sculptural gnarled branch by designer Farrah as centrepiece for Part II. At first that branch is a striking design, but soon, like some of the cast, it wears out its welcome and becomes an obstacle to be avoided by dashing actors. Wisely, the director rations his use of splendor, saving it, for example, for the climax of Part II, when Hal emerges for the coronation enrobed in a cocoon of gold, a shimmering icon on a field of white.
Henry V begins on a bare stage with actors in everyday clothes and warm-up suits. The effect is dislocating. But soon costumes are donned and scenery appears. The opening is an intentional (albeit somewhat self-conscious) reminder that we are in the theater, that this is a performance, that this Hal is the Player King.
New York Times, 27.7.1975.