An Age Of Kings – Episode Seven – Signs of War (Henry V)

Judi Dench
Judi Dench

Episodes seven and eight of An Age Of Kings adapt Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays.  Possibly part of the reason for its appeal is that, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, it is open to various different interpretations.  It can be played as a straightforward heroic piece (as this adaption does) but it also contains darker sequences which explore both the folly and the bitter consequences of war.

The Henry presented across these two episodes is a fairly unambiguous character (similar to Olivier’s performance in his 1944 film) with many of the more questionable points concerning his conduct either downplayed or cut.  But although there are some trims, the bulk of the play is presented here very well – especially considering the limitations of the television studio.

Shakespeare was obviously aware of the problems that existed in attempting to re-create the battle of Agincourt on stage, so the Chorus appears at the beginning of the play to crave the audience’s indulgence in exercising their imagination.

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Given that this television play would also need to call on the audience’s suspension of disbelief, the Chorus is retained and, as played by William Squire, he is able to take us through the early action and operates as a narrator.  A more filmic dramatisation could have dispensed with this device, but the theatrical nature of this play suits the Chorus well.

Many familiar faces from previous episodes (John Ringham, Frank Windsor, Julian Glover, Jerome Willis, etc) fill out the minor roles and there are also several new faces, most notably Judi Dench as Katherine.  She has a single scene here, played with Stephanie Bidmead, and delivered entirely in French – but she manages to light up the screen even in such a short space of time.

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most quotable plays and one of the most famous speeches comes in the middle of this episode.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

This is a speech that defines Henry and Robert Hardy delivers it with passion and relish. The staging of the scene is done very effectively – the camera is placed behind a group of soldiers and Henry stands directly in front of them.  The camera therefore acts as a member of the crowd and the tight nature of the shooting helps to disguise the small scale of the set and the limited number of extras.

By the end of the episode we have reached the conclusion of Act III and the fields of Agincourt beckon.

Next Up – Episode Eight – The Band of Brothers

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