Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Norman bastards and turbulent priests

Hi everyone. For a change, I'm not ranting about the inequities of the world today. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow, probably. No, I'm just going to mention cultural events today.

On Saturday I went down to London to see Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre in Leicester Square with my good friend Adam, who had recently declined a ticket for Richard II for no apparent reason but can be crow-barred out of the house on special occasions. Before he turned up I wandered round the antiquarian bookshops nearby, returning a wiser and poorer Vole. I recommend the experience: every shop is crammed with books priced for rarity and condition rather than quality, and the shopkeepers have their own special brand of patronising disdain. Anyway, the going rate for an RS Thomas volume is now about 3 weeks' rent and signed copies are approaching 5 weeks'. I bought myself a collection of James Laver short stories for considerably less and mooned over the poetry and the Beverley Nichols novels.

After a fine lunch (andouillettes: offally good) we wandered off to the Noel Coward, wondering if the spirit of the play would be affected by the venue. It would certainly make for an amusing production: King Henry could wave a cigarette holder while declaiming 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more' in a louche manner, and leer while he discusses the 'gentlemen now abed'. The theatre itself is an Edwardian monstrosity - gilt and flourishes on every surface, and therefore rather fun. Sadly, it has the most uncomfortable seating I've ever found. Despite being only 5'8" short, I had to rest my legs on the head of the man in front of me, as there isn't any legroom between the seats.

So, the production. Minimalist set, maximalist period costume other than a Boy/Chorus dressed in jeans and a t-shirt as – I presume – a nod to contemporary theatre practice. Jude Law (for it was he) was OK, though his series of funny accents in the Crispian's Day speech was ill-advised.

The rest of the cast were impressive, particularly Jessie Buckley as the French princess, making much of the comic aspects. The coarse sub-plots weren't particularly funny, but the action was excellent, and I particularly liked the French herald and his superiors.

I wasn't sure about Fluellen, MacMorris and Jamy: their accents were truly terrible, but I wasn't sure whether this was deliberate or not. In the play, they're comedy Welsh, Irish and Scots, playing up English stereotypes of those nations. Perhaps these performances were meant to wittily send up this theatrical tradition, perhaps not. The leek-eating scene was particularly good though.

It did make me wonder why this play was put on right now. We're only a few months away from a referendum on Scottish independence, and here we are watching Henry discuss with his advisors how untrustworthy the Scots are: they're guaranteed to attack while the English are at war in France. More widely, it's a play about Britishness and territory, staged once more during a period of depressing Euroscepticism: Henry and his colleagues are of course 'bastard Normans, Norman bastards' according to the French, he himself perhaps insincerely claims to be Welsh when talking to Fluellen, and they're fighting over English claims to French territory (Henry won this battle but his son lost it all). The Norman dynasties spoke French and would not have recognised England as much more than a lucrative holiday home (I may exaggerate slightly) cut off from civilised Europe.

It's quite a jingoistic play. The Celts are blustering liars, bores or psychopaths. The French are snooty and arrogant, the English are largely doughty and bold, with the exception of the scumbags at the bottom (thieves and cowards) and a few traitors at the top. What was slightly lost in this otherwise good performance was Henry's trajectory. At the start, the bishops discuss how much he's grown into the role: in Henry IV part II, he's a carousing, dissolute, idle wastrel, yet in this play he's behaving responsibly and even morally to some extent – guilt about his father's usurpation of the throne drives him to consciously adopt kingly postures. Not all the time: he tells the mayor of Harfleur not to 'make' him let the soldiers loose to rape and murder, and he's pretty quick to tell his troops to kill all their prisoners (a line judiciously dropped in Laurence Olivier's wartime film version). But Law's receding hairline and wrinkled face do at least give the impression of a man weighed down by responsibilities.

So - well worth seeing and one I'm tempted to put on a course.

The next excitement is tonight's visit by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Sadly he's not here to talk about Welsh literature (he's an excellent poet and critic), but about poverty…to an audience of rather well-paid members of the great and good (and me).

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