A selection of RSC productions, listed by year and director:
Michael Boyd (2007)
This production formed part of a two-year staging of the Histories Cycle. (Boyd had previously directed the Henry VI plays and Richard III in the 2000-2001 Histories Cycle - see below.) Geoffrey Streatfeild played a young Henry with vulnerability, bearing the weight of public responsibility. Tom Piper's industrial design for all the plays featured a central cylindrical tower and the set was constructed to look similar to the Courtyard Theatre's 'rusty' exterior.
On the thrust stage, the battle sequences were spectacular - the audience were assaulted with ear-splitting explosions and clouds of smoke as the actors burst out of a central trap-door, scaling ladders across the stage and around the auditorium. In contrast to the plainly-dressed English soldiers emerging from below the stage, the French occupied the aerial space - they wore elaborate brightly-coloured costumes, draped themselves from trapezes and the audience first met Catherine as she was flown in from the roof, presented inside a picture-frame.
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Edward Hall (2000)
This modern dress production was part of the RSC's This England: Histories Cycle sequence, in which all of Shakespeare's plays dealing with the reigns of Richard II to Richard III were presented. As King Henry, William Houston built on his performance as Hal in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. His Henry was a cold man of iron-willed self control until his experiences on the eve of Agincourt disclosed a degree of human vulnerability. Modern battle fatigues were worn by the cast throughout and the design centred around a mobile mine-wheel which, at one point, advanced downstage to become terrifying battle engine.
During the siege of Harfleur, the English soldiers invaded the auditorium, carrying their weapons and ladders into the stalls and the circle. Scenes of battle were stylised: punch-bags rather than human bodies were assaulted. The speeches of the Chorus were shared between the acting company, while the invading English were given rousing songs newly written by the left-wing activist, Billy Bragg.
Ron Daniels (1997)
The opening and concluding scenes of this production were staged to resemble Cenotaph services as modern dressed soldiers gravely marched beneath a series of receding proscenium arches on which were carved the names of soldiers killed in battle. The upbeat energy of the opening Chorus was thus immediately set against an acknowledgment of the pity and waste of war. Henry was shown watching footage of the First World War on a flickering portable screen as he prepared for his own invasion of France. Michael Sheen's boyish king was volatile, intense and genuinely terrifying in his threatened violence to Harfleur. The costumes varied between three different time periods: Henry and his soldiers were dressed in modern camouflage fatigues; the mod-ish blue suits of the preening French had a medieval look; Pistol's leather, shades and ponytail marked him out as an unruly Hell's Angel.
Matthew Warchus (1994)
Tony Britton played the Chorus as a World War II veteran dressed for the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, decorated with medals and red poppies. Long-stemmed poppies were planted around the stage during the battle of Agincourt. The idea of history being commemorated and constructed was sustained in the attention focussed on documents, reading and writing: the documents supporting the Salic Law arguments, Fluellen's books of ancient military history and the final tableau of signatories to the peace treaty. King Henry, played by Iain Glen, and all other characters were dressed in medieval costume, moving across a stage floor of massive stone, on which were engraved the giant letters 'HV' and the dates of the king's birth and death. This design thus anticipated the play's (omitted) epilogue which tells of the heroic king's untimely death and the subsequent humiliation of England's losses in France. Pieces of armour hung on chains above the battlefield of Agincourt, resembling truncated medieval funerary achievements but also conjuring up the 'legs and arms chopped off in a battle' described by Williams on the eve of Agincourt.
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Adrian Noble (1984)
Kenneth Branagh was only in his early twenties when he took the lead in this production. His youth played well in his portrayal of a new king feeling his way and wanting to do the right thing. The recent Falkland conflict cast its shadow on the presentation of war. The English were shown in muddy fields, sheltering from the rain under dirty tarpaulins while the French glittered elegantly in their pavilions. A white gauze curtain descended to conceal the women placing candles by the corpses on the field of Agincourt. The flickering candlelight gleamed like stars through this veil as Henry wooed the French princess.
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Terry Hands (1975)
This production was one in a series where the audience could see also Alan Howard as the prince in the two parts of Henry IV. The actors first appeared in the modern, casual clothes suitable for a rehearsal and only gradually did they begin to assume period costume, beginning with the arrival of the French ambassador. It was as though Alan Howard's Henry could only slowly learn the full complexity and weight of his new role as king. Howard's Henry was a lonely and sometimes anguished figure, only finding fulfilment in the companionship of his 'band of brothers' in battle. As the Chorus, Emrys James continued to wear his modern black outfit throughout the play. Therefore, he was the only one in modern dress when, in Act 5, he took the role of Burgundy to deliver the eloquent plea for peace.
Peter Hall and John Barton (1964)
This production was part of the so-called Wars of the Roses cycle, in which Hall and Barton presented the whole of the cycle of eight plays, from Richard II through to Richard III.
Ian Holm had already played Prince Hal in the earlier plays and also took the role of Richard of Gloucester, who emerged from the savageries of the civil wars to murder his way to the throne and be crowned as Richard III. With his small, unimposing stature and bitingly clear and naturalistic verse speaking, Holm played against any easy clichés of heroic physical strength. He led his war-torn army with dogged perseverance and had no illusions about the glories of war. (See photo above right.)
Anthony Quayle (1951)
Anthony Quayle's influential production presented the play as part of the sequence of four historical plays, running from Richard II and continuing through Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. A single permanent staging was used for all four plays and Richard Burton, just at the start of his career, had already scored a great success in his portrayal of Prince Hal. Michael Redgrave, who had played Hotspur and Richard II in the season's other productions, took the part of the Chorus.
There was still resistance to the idea that the play was best served when placed in the context of Shakespeare's other history plays rather than standing alone and delivering an uncomplicated and rousing celebration of heroic kingship. Some critics were accordingly disappointed in Burton's restrained performance, failing to see that it was his intention to present not an uncomplicated man of action, but a king troubled by insecurity and self-doubt.
Frank Benson (1897 to 1916)
Frank Benson/s production of the play satisfied the audience's desire for stage pageantry and colour and was revived at Stratford and toured elsewhere from 1897 to 1916. Benson chose unquenchable energy and athleticism rather than introspective moral questioning as the key notes of his portrayal of Henry. Max Beerbohm compared his acting style to a 'branch of university cricket... Speech after speech was sent spinning across the boundary…' His pole vault in full armour on to the walls of Harfleur was a particular highlight.
A full list of RSC productions with details of cast and production team can be found in the RSC Performance Database on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.
Written by Rebecca Brown and Suzanne Worthington © RSC
Photo by Reg Wilson shows Ian Holm as Henry in the RSC's 1964 production of Henry V © RSC