Art doesn’t only imitate life – at times it holds a mirror up to it and comments on it too.
Often those times coincide with a turning point in society or a moment of national crisis or reflection. The 1950s for example gave us Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a stark metaphor for America’s Communist witch hunts, and, here in Britain, John Osborne’s post-Suez play The Entertainer in which the faded music hall star Archie Rice mirrored the decline of Britain as a world power.
In recent years plays which have captured a certain zeitgeist or have made a social comment – either overtly or obliquely – on the idea of Britishness and our relationship with the wider world include Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, David Edgar’s Testing the Echo and Mike Bartlett’s bittersweet Albion. But we also continue to look back to the Bard and his works, many of which remain pertinent four centuries after they were written.
Henry V has taken on that mantle over many generations; sometimes as a simple patriotic call to arms, and sometimes as a more complex commentary on the waging of war or the decision-making of our political leaders. Shakespeare wrote the play in the closing year of the 16th century, and in the long shadow cast by the Armada crisis. And Henry V’s ‘we few, we happy few’ has echoes of Elizabeth I’s own speech to her troops at Tilbury in 1588 when she reputedly told them: “I am come amongst you….not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.”
But it was also penned against a backdrop of rebellion in Ireland, a rebellion whose failure to quell would lead to the final downfall of the arrogant Earl of Essex. He may have been the Queen’s favourite, but like Henry she was dispassionate enough to deal with a threat to her throne. England’s foe at Agincourt are of course the ‘old enemy’ France, and Henry V was revived throughout the Seven Years War of 1756-63, and again – by Kemble – in the 1790s in productions that reflected a national anti-French mood.
Moving forward a century, Henry’s stirring heroism on the battlefield was played up during the Boer Wars, as it was during the 1940s. While Laurence Olivier had delivered a nuanced and multi-faceted performance as Henry at the Old Vic before the war, his patriotic 1944 film – part-funded by the British government and released in the wake of D-Day, was designed as a simple morale booster after five gruelling years of conflict.
It was another conflict meanwhile which informed Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 production at the National, where the parallels between Bush and Blair’s post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and Adrian Lester’s Henry riding off to war on the back of a dubious dossier (presented by William Gaunt’s Archbishop of Canterbury) were made searingly clear.
Henry V it seems remains a play that speaks to and for all ages. And so, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more….