Henry V & the Impact of War on RSC Productions

To mark the anniversary of Agincourt, the Shakespeare Institute Library is staging an exhibition on performances of Henry V which have been particularly influenced by modern conflict. At the recent pressnight for the RSC’s current production Gregory Doran stated that the play is not anti- or pro- war but a play which explores the many aspects of war. To complement our exhibition which focuses on productions by Laurence Olivier, Ron Daniels and Nicholas Hytner this blog explores how modern warfare has impacted on RSC productions in the past.


In the programme to the 1994 production of Henry V, directed by Matthew Warchus, John Ramsden commented:

Largely through Shakespeare, a King who was an unpleasantly ruthless fanatic who liked nothing better than burning heretics became what Hazlitt called ‘the favourite monarch of the English nation’, much cited whenever England was under attack.[1]

Henry V is a play at the mercy of the society and time in which it is produced. This is strongly evidenced by the ‘swing of 180 degrees, from patriotic heroism to bitter irony’[2] after the Second World War.

… As the dramatist John Arden once pointed out, it is as if there is a sceptical unofficial play beneath the patriotic official one. We get to know the braggarts and the victims, the would-be war-profiteers and the common soldiers who suspect they will die in an unjust cause. We also hear a great deal of questioning and self-questioning. [3]

It is only in the last 50 years that we have seen this emphasis on the ‘unofficial play’, prompted by a radical shift in the way people think about national identity, politics and ideas of heroism.

The programme to the 1964 Peter Hall production used a passage from Erasmus’s essay ‘On Beginning War’ dated 1540, to emphasis the anti-war stance, to give a timelessness to the proceedings, and provide evidence that nothing is learned from history:

War is sown from war. The prince is compelled to expose his young men to so many dangers, and often in a single hour to make many an orphan, widow, childless old man, beggar, and unhappy wretch. The wisdom of princes will be too costly for the world if they persist in learning from experience how dreadful war is.[5]

Sheen mourning the dead

Michael Sheen as Henry mourns the dead. Dir. Ron Daniels, RSC, 1997

In a century in which man was supposed to be more reasoned, aware and humane there have been more deaths by war in the last hundred years than in all the centuries preceding in the Christian calendar put together. An awareness of this depressing fact on twentieth-century warfare has had an indelible effect on performances of Shakespeare’s history plays, particularly with Henry V. Terry Hands referred to Peter Hall’s 1964 production as ‘the Vietnam anti-war version’[6]; Adrian Noble’s 1984 version powerfully and effectively … responded to the Falklands conflict by stressing the awful realities of war’[7]; in 2003 Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre deliberately drew ‘parallels with the then jingoistic mood of the government as it first justified and then embarked upon the invasion of Iraq.’[8] During the Iraq war, reports of 100 English soldiers killed in combat in relation to over 100,000 Iraqi civilian dead has nothing to do with a miracle like Agincourt, but has everything to do with the ethics of combat which Shakespeare questions in the play.

The social impact of war has played a part in the staging of Henry V, especially with regards to the democratisation that happens in times of conflict – the bringing together of all classes, the dropping of social pretensions as happened to some extent during the Second World War. This was emphasised in Edward Hall’s 2000 production which dispensed with the Chorus as a single identifiable figure, giving his lines to the cast of men and women in army fatigues:

The Chorus’s text was chopped up so that everyone could have his – or her – own little piece … expressions of relevance and democratic individualism [9]

In today’s world soldiers are no longer nameless faceless casualties; we see their families’ grief on television, read about their suicides in the newspapers. At the start of the twenty-first century each soldier has a voice in a way they never had before. The common soldiers’ domination in Hall’s production was also emphasised by the use of striking songs by the political songwriter Billy Bragg. Hall was making a definite statement by choosing a radical and political folk musician who continually questions the nature of Englishness and identity in his own songwriting. Charles Spencer of the Telegraph wrote:

The entire cast wear military fatigues, and the low-life scenes, set in a boozed-up Naafi, are superbly played, with fights breaking out and the entire cast singing an “Ere-we-go, ere we go” – style anthem especially written for the occasion … with repeated cries of “Eng-er-land”.[10]

William Houston as Henry amongst his soldiers. Dir. Edward Hall, RSC, 2000

William Houston as Henry amongst his soldiers. Dir. Edward Hall, RSC, 2000

The brutal realities of war are not something that can be shirked. Adrian Noble’s 1984 production underlined the conflict between soldiers’ emotional life and the hardships of the battlefield. Michael Billington’s review confirmed how the production explored:

… the cruelty, pain, and pathos of the ensuing war as well as its moments of professional exhilaration … the most touching is the sight of the impoverished English soldiery … huddled together under tarpaulin sheets as the rain pelts down. This is what war means – getting soaked in some foreign field … What this humane and thoughtful production offers is the soldier’s view of war; and their feelings about conflict are summed up in … the memorable sound of the clang of swords hurled to the ground as the battle is finally won.[11]

Warchus’s 1994 production emphasised the brutality of war by choosing to show the killing of the French prisoners – a moment which is often left off stage, cut, or moved to after the discovery of the murdered boys to maintain sympathy for Henry. Again the effect on the ordinary soldier was marked:

Wood as Pistol… having the prisoners killed on stage brilliantly produced a reaction of protest and horror from Clive Wood’s Pistol, a coward forced to kill and loathing it, nearly vomiting after the killing, an unwilling participant in the actuality of the war off which he has been freeloading.[12]

In the words of the critic Jan Kott, in the seminal work Shakespeare, Our Contemporary ‘The greatness of Shakespeare’s realism consists in his awareness of the extent to which people are involved in history’[13] – the common citizen as much as the king.

By using war memorials as part of the productions’s design, many of these productions have been dominated by a sense of death – the greatest leveller of all. In an eerie opening, the RSC’s 1997 production, directed by Ron Daniels, saw the ghosts of the dead, names from a memorial, coming to life to relive and tell their story in the eternal field of conflict. Henry and the others entered, ‘… a phalanx of officers in gold-and-blue uniforms slow-marching to a drum.’[14] Rex Gibson in the Times Educational Supplement wrote:

[This was a]… sustained critique of the horrors of war. The set is part American Vietnam memorial, part Menin Gate. Well over 2,000 names cover every wall, an ever-present reminder of the fellowship of death. King Henry is first seen watching with appalled fascination a flickering film of the carnage of 1914-18 trench warfare … the production portrays remorselessly how soldiers on both sides die brutally in war.[15]

You can imagine the emotional effect this setting had on the audience when Henry sitting amongst the dead read out the names of those who had fallen in battle. Likewise, Matthew Warchus’s 1994 production there was an added sense of mortality and futility as Henry battled across the stage at Agincourt – the stage floor tipped to a steep rake, revealing the dates ‘1387-1422’, the limits of Henry’s life, so that the battle was fought across his tomb.[16]

war memorial

Set for the 1994 RSC production with war memorial dominating the rear of the stage.

[1] John Ramsden ‘This story shall the good man tell his son …’, in Henry V, RSC programme, 1994

[2] Loehlin, James N., Henry V, Shakespeare in Performance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996)

[3] Benedict Nightingale, Times, 12.5.94

[5] ‘War is Sown from War’ condensed from Erasmus’s Essay on Beginning War (1540), in Henry V, RSC programme, 1965

[6] Anthony Brennan, Henry V, Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare, 1992

[7] James N. Loehlin, Henry V, Shakespeare in Performance, 1996

[8] John O’Connor, Shakespearean Afterlives: ten characters with a life of their own, 2003

[9] Rhoda Koenig, Independent, 4.9.2000

[10] Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 4.9.00

[11] Michael Billington, Guardian, 29.3.94

[12] ibid

[13] Jan Kott, Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, 1964

[14] Benedict Nightingale, Times, 13.9.97

[15] Rex Gibson, Times Educational Supplement, 19.9.97

[16] Peter Holland, English Shakespeares: Shakespeare on the English Stage in the 1990s, 1997


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