Man, I thought I was CURSED this week. A series of minor but deeply annoying misfortunes has befallen me and, although I’m not into woo-woo astrology, on the third straight day of terrible things happening I Googled “Is Mercury in retrograde?” and the answer was yes, yes it is. I’m going to therefore use that to explain every bad thing that has happened this week.
After three days of phone-breaking, flat-locking-out and things-being-stolen, Ewan knew exactly what would cheer me up: Shakespeare! Drunk Shakespeare! Aimed at children!
Henry V at the Unicorn Theatre
And indeed the un-cursing began almost immediately last night when I walked up to the Unicorn Theatre’s box office, where a staff member was on the phone with a customer. “If you’re sure you can’t make it tonight, I can take back the tickets and try to sell them on,” he was saying. “But I can’t promise a refund…I mean, someone would have to walk up and want to buy tickets for tonight, in the next hour.” Perfect! After doing just that, Ewan and I had a quick twodrinks at the nearest pub and came back to the most magical kind of theatre to walk into: an empty space.
This production is a translation of a translation, aimed at children and one hour long. It came back to English (by Purni Morell) from a Belgian adaptation (by Ignace Cornelissen) – it was taken out of the immediate context of being an English play about England and come back slightly more alien, and less about Just Us.
Although not every production seems to recognise it, Shakespeare’s Henry V is a postmodern and deeply problematised play. The Chorus starts by highlighting how much “history” is constructed, telling us everything we’re seeing is made up and asking us to go with it anyway. In the final lines, the Chorus tells us that Henry’s victories will be undone by his useless son, but asks us to ignore that fact immediately after bringing it to our attention: we are made complicit in the creation of an idealised historical narrative. Meanwhile the ideal of a righteous macho military monarchy is eviscerated by the soldier Williams, speaking to a disguised King Henry the night before Agincourt:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place’: some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.
Henry tried to get himself off the hook with a long monologue – “Every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own” – but Williams pushes him further down it and lets him wriggle.
HENRY: I myself heard the king say he would not be ransomed.
WILLIAMS: Ay, he said so to make us fight cheerfully: but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne’er the wiser.
HENRY: If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after.
WILLIAMS: You pay him then.
Shakespeare’s Henry gets immediately, hotly angry and threatens to fight Williams; they trade signs so they’ll recognise each other in daylight and can kill each other then if the French haven’t killed them first. When Williams goes to bed, Henry drops to his knees and desperately prays to God (and the audience) to forgive him for…his father’s deposition of Richard II. Henry doesn’t have a response to Williams because there is no possible response; instead he tries to divert attention to his father’s sin. It’s an excellent misdirection: Henry can emotionally martyr himself over it – “Look, it wasn’t my fault but I’m making up for it anyway!” – and realign the narrative to be about his righteous quest to absolve his inherited guilt, rather than anything to do with Henry’s own direction and complicity in the deaths of thousands of his own subjects.
This scene is left effectively whole in the Unicorn Theatre’s adaptation, which otherwise is very loose with Shakespeare’s play. Henry (Shane Zaza) pulls up his hoodie and slouches petulantly against the set. “It’s not easy being a king, don’t you think?” he asks his soldier. The soldier, like Williams, barely looks at him while rattling off exactly what’s wrong with that opinion, on every level but particularly when one is sitting on a deadly battlefield in a war explicitly started by said king to make a grab for land, money and ego.
The pomo narrative stuff kicks in with a conflict between the Narrator (Abdul Salis) – the Chorus figure whose magic “old talecoat” gives him the power to control the narrative – and Princess Katherine (Hannah Boyde). In this production she’s been reconstituted as a fairytale queen, beloved by the people, who inherits her father’s crown after his death. Katherine is first seen patiently building sandcastles on the giant sand-filled snooker table that is the play’s main set; through the second half of the play Henry and his French opponent stride across sandpit, breaking down the smaller castles in their fight for the biggest, most impressive one.
When her father the King of France dies, Katherine becomes presumptive queen. However, she’s just 17 and her father’s will appoints Distant Cousin Nigel (Rhys Rusbatch), a pantomime villain who replaces the Dauphin as France’s military protagonist, as regent until she reaches majority at 21. Henry and Nigel argue over who will marry her and secure the French crown in fairly simplistic language – “She doesn’t want to marry you, she’d be unhappy.” “Who cares what she thinks?” – and Katherine turns to the Narrator and asks, “Why do I always have to be a small part in someone else’s story?”.
Her explicit conflict with the Narrator comes to a crisis when Henry locks her in a tower, and she and the Narrator start to argue and counter each other’s devices. He (and by metonymy the story itself) begins to box her in, both her physical self and her freedom to react. “Princess Katherine was locked in a tower,” he says directly to us, “and she started to cry in helpless despair.” The actor raises her eyebrows and looks skeptically at him, clearly feeling “deeply annoyed” rather than any of the above.
The Narrator says the door is locked, but Katherine says she has a spare key. The Narrator tells us it broke off in the lock. Katherine finds an axe. The Narrator sadly says there is a metal door behind the wood, through which no axe could break. Katherine stops, and thinks, and starts to sniffle, and shiver. The Narrator – the narrative – looks at her and only sees pitiable weakness. He puts his coat around her.
“Princess Katherine remembered that her mother had told her about a secret door,” Katherine says. “A door that no one else knew about, a door she could use to escape.”
And the Narrator realises that he has just handed her his magic talecoat.
The power balance has shifted forever; Katherine has simply taken control of the story. The former Narrator slips away and becomes the soldier who has Williams’ argument with Henry, and Katherine calmly assumes the storyteller role, authoring – and challenging – the narrative herself.
As Henry and Nigel step up their petty war and Katherine/Narrator looks on in frustration, I was worried the production would fall into the trope of “exasperated sensible woman is called in to sort out silly juvenile men”, which is not exactly progressive. But although the two kings’ immaturity is a major motif – the play is staged on a giant sandbox called FRANCE, do you get it – Katherine’s beef is with the narrative itself. She’s not exasperated with the men (mostly), but with the story that’s causing them to act that way. That is, both the story they’re acting in – the one called “Henry V” – and the story in the boys’ heads they’re trying to live up to – which today in English culture is also called “Henry V”, among others. Through the play, and our cultural history, “being a king” is explicitly paired with “making war”, and Henry and the Dauphin are trying to act out that dream: adulthood – kingship – war: without challenging it. The repeated line “Every boy wants to be a king” is deeply critical, but it isn’t criticising the boys – it’s criticising that story, that cultural narrative and that perception of history which creates a world of boys who all want to live it. And in the play’s final scene, that story is joyfully flung aside as Katherine accepts the crown of France and hurls it into the air like a graduation cap. Reaching adulthood means shedding that myth, not fulfilling it.
This Henry V is aimed at children, but that all that means is that it’s simple and clear: it’s still complicated, it just isn’t obscure. Nothing about Shakespeare’s play has been dumbed down. The problems are still problems (Williams, the institution of monarchy, the construction of history), and the problems it didn’t realise are problems are still problems (Katherine). And there’s free chocolates. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a better way to adapt Shakespeare.
Henry V runs at the Unicorn Theatre, 147 Tooley Street, SE1 2HZ, until November 16. Tickets are £16 (adults), £13 (concessions) and £10 (under 21).