Stage history

Henry V (1951) Henry (Richard Burton) attempts to woo Katherine (Hazel Penwarden) Photo by Angus McBean © RSC

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of Henry V from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.

Seventeenth century

The play's Chorus begs indulgence for the limited and simple effects available to the Elizabethan stage. Henry V was originally performed in daylight on the thrust stage within the 'wooden O' of an Elizabethan playhouse, where the balcony at the rear of the stage might supply the walls of Harfleur, against which English scaling ladders could be propped.. The lack of any kind of naturalistic scenery and the minimum of props allowed the action to move swiftly and freely, leaving the audience to enjoy both the physical action and the language of the play. Music added to the effect, as did costume, especially in this play of royal and military display.

Following the convention of the time, many of the smaller roles would have been doubled and the female roles were played by skilful and talented boys. Perhaps the Boy and the French Princess were played by the same youthful actor, who could be relied upon to speak French well. Shakespeare wrote the title role for the leading man of the Lord Chamberlain's Company, Richard Burbage, capitalising on his superb vocal technique and winning physical presence.

The title page of the play's first printed edition, in 1600, describes the play as follows:
'The Chronicle: history of Henry the fift, With his battell fought at Agin Court in France. Togither with Auntient Pistoll. As it hath bene sundry times playd by the Right honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his servants.'

The grandiloquent Pistol had clearly already established himself as a favourite with audiences and could be relied on to increase sales. Pistol's widespread popularity, together with the tradition of his wearing a particular kind of large broad-brimmed hat, continued well into the nineteenth century.

We know the play was still in the Company's repertoire six years after its first appearance because an entry in the Revels Accounts shows that the play was performed before King James on 7 January 1605 as part of the court's Christmas celebrations.

Eighteenth century

After the reopening of the theatres on the Restoration of King Charles II, the play was not revived until 1723 and then only in the heavily adapted form of Aaron Hill's version. Women were now available to be seen on the English stage and Hill makes the most of such attractions, inventing new female roles, at least one of which obliged the actress to expose herself in male disguise.

Catering to the sentimental taste of the day, Hill focussed on the relationship between king and princess, adding another young lady, named Harriet, who has been seduced and abandoned by Henry. Henry's romantic escapades have also extended to his having already engaged the princess's affections while in disguise at the French court so that, finally, she is relieved and delighted to find that the man whom she must marry is, in fact, her secret admirer. Harriet, meanwhile, thoughtfully removes herself from the equation by confessing her guilt for all that has passed and stabbing herself. Hill added new patriotic and triumphalist speeches, exploiting the anti-French feeling current in England after the War of the Spanish Succession.

Hill's version was revived in the 1730s and '40s and it was not until John Philip Kemble's production in 1789 that something more like Shakespeare's original could be heard again on stage. Even in this version, there were significant cuts, not least all the speeches of the Chorus. Other cuts ensured that Henry was an uncomplicatedly sympathetic figure and again the ongoing war with France made the play apt for public consumption. Kemble's production enjoyed success for the next 20 years or so.

Nineteenth century

Henry V was a gift to the nineteenth-century theatre's love of spectacle and historical realism - opportunities abounded for antiquarianism and colourful pictorialism. Since complicated set changes could not be done quickly, more and more had to be cut from the text to keep the running time manageable. Likewise, the role of Henry grew at the expense of the play's many lesser but crucial roles. The actor-managers took the leading role and everything and everyone bowed down to the greater glory of Henry and the star.

In 1839, William Charles Macready enjoyed great success at Covent Garden. He restored the Chorus but cut the apologetic references to the shortcomings of the theatre. He had no need to apologise, since his stage was able to delight the eye with spectacular painted dioramas, depicting the fleet leaving Southampton, the siege of Harfleur and Henry's victorious return to London, the last of which is, in fact, only described by the Chorus in Shakespeare's text.

Charles Kean went further in his production in 1859 at the Princess's Theatre, in which he played Henry and his wife represented the Chorus as Clio, the Muse of History. Kean's production lasted over four hours yet more than half of the text was cut. Among other stupendous visual displays, the audience could marvel at a literal realisation of the siege of Harfleur. On 29 March 1859, The Times describes it thus:
'...there is the fitting and fixing the engines and guns under the walls of the town... the blowing forth of stones by the force of ignited powders - the impetuosity and fury of the terrible attack - the scarcely less terrible repulse - the smoke, the confusion, the death, amid all the horrors and darkness of the strife, in the midst of which the dauntless king urges on his followers to the breach, until the ruin of the French bulwark is accomplished.'

Charles Calvert's production in Manchester in 1872 was one of the most popular of the Victorian period. It toured to New York and then played at Drury Lane in 1879. Although still in the tradition of conjuring up spectacular stage pictures, this production was significant in being the first to allow room for the ambivalence of the play's presentation of war. Calvert had himself recently raised funds for the victims of the Franco-Prussian wars. The French in his production were victims before they were enemies, and wounded soldiers and grieving women could be seen amidst the triumphant crowds celebrating the return of Henry to London. It was in this production that Katherine's French lesson was finally restored, although still without its final obscenities.

Twentieth century

The play was given a strongly heroic interpretation in productions at the turn of the century, responding to the military nationalism aroused by the Boer War. Actors such as Lewis Waller and Frank Benson portrayed Henry as an uncomplicated, physically impressive warrior, set off by pleasingly picturesque medieval costumes and armour. A departure from this came in 1901 when William Poel presented the play for one performance at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. With a small cast, a bare stage, and simple Elizabethan costuming, Poel's aim was to restore the play to something of its original swiftly fluid Elizabethan staging.

Laurence Olivier took the lead in Tyrone Guthrie's production at the Old Vic in 1937. This production moved away from recent traditions and portrayed Henry as a thoughtful and complex man. Guthrie and Olivier chose to explore the ambiguities and questioning of the play and so marked the way for future productions.

On film

Olivier built on his experience at the Old Vic when he directed and starred in the film version of the play in 1944. As in previous centuries, the play was an obvious choice to steel the resolve of a nation at war and the film is dedicated to the British forces whose task it was to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation. The film begins and ends as a performance in the Globe Playhouse, with the actors playing in a nicely stylized fashion. The action then moves out into a kind of animated Book of Hours before assuming full and impressive realism at the Battle of Agincourt, thrillingly presented with full French cavalry and a deadly rain of English arrows.

The play was filmed again in 1989, under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, who also took the leading role. He had played the part for Adrian Noble at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1984 and his film owes much to that production. In 1979, the play was filmed as part of the BBC series of Shakespeare's plays. David Gwillim played the king, having already played Prince Hal with the same cast and director David Giles in the BBC productions of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

Recent productions

Michael Bogdanov directed the play in 1986 in the English Shakespeare Company's eight play history cycle, running from Richard II through to Richard III. Michael Pennington presented a coldly intelligent, isolated king. This production was fearless in its debunking of English heroism and the glory of war, with unflattering allusions to the Falklands conflict of a few years earlier. Pistol and his companions invaded an elegantly civilised France as a bunch of drunken football hooligans, their obscene chants drowning out the uplifting strains of Jerusalem playing in the background. This production was recorded on video, together with the others in Bogdanov's Wars of the Roses cycle.

Nicholas Hytner, likewise, drew on contemporary conflicts in his production at the National Theatre in 2004. Adrian Lester played the king in this modern dress production, in which visual allusions to the ongoing invasion of Iraq gave pre-eminence to the play's questioning of the merits of war. Penny Downie played the Chorus, consulting her file of archival records as she told the story.

Some years before, in 1997, Richard Olivier directed Mark Rylance as Henry at Shakespeare's Globe. The actors were dressed in Elizabethan costume in this all-male production and made good use of the venue's intimacy between actor and audience, especially in urging soldiers once more into the breach or in inviting cheers as the French were killed. Despite such a directly triumphalist approach in the rest of the production, Mark Rylance's performance achieved a subtlety and emotional nuance which did justice to the complexities of the king's character.

RSC productions 1897 - 2007 »


Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Angus McBean shows Henry (Richard Burton) attempting to woo Katherine (Hazel Penwarden) © RSC

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