Edit: Привет всем людям из России и Украины которые читают этот пост 🙂
A major televised adaptation of Henry V is always a generational experience – even more so than a Hamlet. It sets in stone who’s the theatre-loving public’s most current heartthrob. It defines the contemporary view on the justice and injustice of war. Finally, it reminds everyone how brilliant Shakespeare’s battle speeches are and how always relevant his history plays remain.
Tom Hiddleston had, of course, been cast as Hal long before the onset of Loki-mania and, as such, the choice had been dictated purely by his acting prowess, not fan popularity. To play Henry in all three consecutive instalments is no mean feat, and that Hiddleston manages to even get through to the end of it all is a respectable achievement of itself.
Under Thea Sharrock’s direction, Hiddleston’s Henry is a broken, solemn, unhappy man. Quiet and often sulking, a rare smirk in the French ambassador scene being the only reminder of erstwhile merry-making Hal (which in the previous two plays didn’t really seem to fit Hiddleston’s character all that well, to be honest). It is a strange Henry. This, after all, is the king who led the English to one of their greatest victories in history. Could he really have done it while sulking and moping about? On the other hand, he is a man who inherited the throne of a usurper, was forced into a war with France and died young of dysentery. Perhaps what Thea Sharrock was going for is pointing out that the Middle Ages were no fun even for the kings.
Henry V is defined by its two famous soliloquies, but Sharrock’s bold decision was to make it as if the speeches didn’t matter as much in the bigger picture. It is a controversial approach and it took me a second viewing to warm up to it.
The Harfleur speech is spoken so fast and amid so much chaos, you could almost miss it. There seems to be more focus on Fluellen and his band of braggarts than on the king himself. I think this is the only scene in the entire play where Hiddleston raises his voice – and breaks it ever so slightly in a Brannaghy way. I found it a fitting, realistic way to do the speech: during the chaos of a night battle, a commander would have little time for dramatic soliloquies.
It is the second, more famous soliloquy that is the key to Hiddleston’s and Sharrock’s idea for the play. It was such a striking divergence from the tradition that I found it at first dull, disappointing and badly executed.
On second viewing, however, I understood what they were going for. Hiddleston’s Henry V is tired and irritated. His face during the speech says, to me: “Honestly, people. This is a fight for our lives. Just get on with it.” This is not a man exhilarated by the prospect of combat – this is a man tired of war, of dysentery, of hunger. He can’t muster enough strength even for the last rousing speech.
I get it, but I’m still not sure I like it. If you didn’t know (spoilers! :)) that Agincourt was a mighty victory, you might think Henry is a king leading his men to a dismal failure. That the Hal trilogy is a tragic story of a youth who, thrown out of his depth, brought disaster upon his nation and not one of the finest warriors in medieval England.
Hiddleston is played to his strengths here – he does brood quite well, and looks dashing in leather. But there were a few more casting choices I did not agree with. Paterson Joseph was wasted as York – he should have been given Exeter. By Jove can this man scowl! I didn’t care much for Lessen, although his performance did fit with the overall theme of everyone being tired and fed up with life. Owen Teale’s Fluellen came out flat, his bushy hair and wild beard having more personality than his face.
The French, on the other hand, were all magnificent: Jeremie Covillault’s Montjoy stole every scene he’d been in, outplaying every English thespian around him. Stanley Weber’s Orleans was splendidly suave, and I think I’ve developed a serious case of mancrush on Edward Akrout.
This was a Henry V for the tired generation, for the nation brought to its knees and unable to rise to its former glories. This Henry V‘s crown is a hollow one indeed.