The opening lines of Henry V, the ‘Oh for a muse of fire’ ones, are justly famous for their beauty and literary flare. But at the end of the day, they are basically an excuse for poor staging. We are being told that the actors are doing their best but you’ll have to use your imagination to fill in the dots.
This was quite a good intro to this open production by Illyria. Illyria are a small theatre company. And when I say small, I mean small. There were just five of them. And when it came to props, no expense had been spent. Actually that isn’t entirely fair – the costumes were quite good.
But they gleefully turned these apparent disadvantages into almost an asset. There was nothing to watch except the acting, and that was never less than good and often very entertaining indeed. There is, it turns out, quite a lot of humour in this play. We got some good laughs. The serious bits were played seriously, and were only let down by the fact that what seemed important in Shakespeare’s time doesn’t seem such a big deal today. We aren’t as interested in the role of a king any more. This can’t be helped. Our lives are no longer affected by the activities of the monarch, so what makes a good or bad one just doesn’t seem to matter that much any more.
But while the political situation has changed, human nature hasn’t. The less exalted characters behave much the way people do today. I have never really taken to the idea that Shakespeare is some kind of transcendent genius. For me his plays are still worth watching mainly because he is so good at portraying what people are really like. And we are all interested in people.
The main character is the most interesting. Henry V comes across as a driven man, very impulsive and not completely in control of himself despite clearly being very able. We get plenty of insight into the horror of war. The battle of Agincourt is portrayed with only two people on either side with the fifth member of the cast describing a parabola with a long stick to which a sheath of arrows has been attached. But comical as this was, war during that period was a bloody business that only served the dynastic ambitions of the monarch.
All in all, a great night’s entertainment. As it happened, the exact same play was on the television the following night in a full blown no holds barred cinematic experience. It was a bit boring. I preferred the open air version with minimal props.