Henry V

Definition

Theater

  • One of the best-known of Shakespeare's history plays:it completes the trilogy (with Henry IV, Part I and PartII) that charts the development of the young Prince Hal into asuccessful king. Henry V was written and first performed in1599. Although it gives a strongly patriotic view of the early yearsof Henry's reign, culminating in the victory over the French at Agincourt,modern directors have emphasized the elements of irony and realismthat also exist in the play.

    Producers of Henry V have gone to considerable lengthsto recreate the battle scenes. Samuel Phelps, manager of Sadler'sWells Theatre from 1843 to 1862, had 40 actors marching behind a rockthat only revealed their heads and shoulders. Strapped to each soldier'sbody were two dummies in armour, with heads modelled by Madame Tussaud's,so that there appeared to be 120 soldiers.

    Laurence Olivier starred in the Old Vic's 1937 production.Charles Laughton once told him, "Do you know why you're so goodin this part? You're England, that's all." After that, whenpeople asked Olivier how he did it, he would say, "It's simple:I am England." Olivier also directed and starred in a stirringwartime film version in 1944.

    One of the most celebrated Henrys of modern times was KennethBranagh, who played the part in 1984 at Stratford; at 22,he was the youngest actor the RSC had ever cast in the role. Branaghalso made a film version in 1990, the first since Olivier's. He chosethe play because "It has a crackling narrative, immense visualpossibilities, and so many ideas - about politics, about war - that seem right for now." The play's contemporary relevanceemerged even more sharply from Nicholas Hytner's acclaimed 2003production at the National Theatre, which ran during the Iraq War. Amongstits other distinctions, the production was the first to feature a BlackHenry (Adrian Lester).

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