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

An Age Of Kings – Episode Eight – The Band of Brothers (Henry V)

band

The Band of Brothers concludes the adaptation of Henry V.  It opens with the Chorus’ description of the English camp on the night before the Battle of Agincourt.  Henry (in disguise) moves around the camp to gauge the thoughts of his men.  One of them, Williams (another fine performance from Frank Windsor), is most eloquent on the subject of whether they are right to face the French on the following day.

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.

The next dawn dawns and Henry has one final chance to rouse his men before they do battle.  This is another of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches – the St Crispian’s Day speech – and Robert Hardy attacks it full-bloodily.

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Whilst we’ve discussed before the problems of staging battles with such limited production resources, it’s disappointing that the Battle of Agincourt is so limply presented.  There surely should have been a way to present it better than this.  We see a shot of feet walking on the spot facing right and then switch to another shot of feet walking on the spot facing left.  The shot then cuts back and forward several times – which is meant to illustrate the two armies marching towards each other.  Then there’s a tight shot of soldiers engaged in a very slow battle, whilst Henry is placed in the foreground, looking towards the camera.  The whole battle sequence lasts only twenty seconds or so.

There’s a number of cuts to the text made – some scenes with Pistol, Gower and Fluellen are excised and Henry’s reaction (“I was not angry since I came to France. Until this instant.”) now occurs immediately after we’ve seen the luggage boys killed, which is used to underscore why he is so keen to ensure that not one Frenchman is left alive.

But the battle’s over, although it takes a little while for it to sink in. When Henry realises he’s won, he sinks to his knees and accepts the congratulations of Fluellen (Kenneth Farrington) who claims Henry as a true-born Welshman. With so much of Fluellen’s role cut (including his duel with Williams in Act Four, Scene Eight) it’s difficult for Farrington to make much of an impression – but at least he manages it here.

The confrontation between Fluellen and the “turkey cock” Pistol in Act Five, Scene One doesn’t play terribly well. Fluellen seems too aggressive and Pistol (George A. Cooper) plays it too broadly. It really needed a lighter comic touch than was presented here.  And given that many of Fluellen’s lines have been cut, it probably would have been better to lose this as well, since it really only works when we’ve seen more of Fluellen.

Things improve when we move to the French court and Henry attempts to woo Katherine. As with Signs of War, Judi Dench impresses as Katherine.  After their courtship, the Chorus returns to being the play to its conclusion by resting a hand on a coffin which contains Henry.  So as the Chorus concludes the tale of Henry V, Henry VI is waiting in the wings.

Next up – Episode Eight – The Red Rose and the White

An Age Of Kings – Episode Nine – The Red Rose and the White (Henry VI Part One)

eileen atkins
Eileen Atkins

Henry VI Part One is generally considered to be the weakest of Shakespeare’s history cycle.  This might explain why, uniquely, it was the only play adapted for An Age of Kings to be condensed down to a single episode. This obviously meant that major cuts had to be made – the exploits of Talbot in France are completely removed as are all the battle scenes.  What remains are the verbal skirmishes between the nobles in England as they symbolically choose either white or red roses to mark their allegiance.

With the battles in France excised, what’s left are the scenes between the Dauphin (Jerome Willis) and Joan of Arc (Eileen Atkins).  These could have been cut too, which would have allowed all the events of the play to be centered in England, but I’m glad they were kept in.  Atkins gives a striking performance – her Joan is confident and self-assured and she easily captivates the Dauphin.

Dauphin, I am by birth a shepherd’s daughter,
My wit untrain’d in any kind of art.
Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleased
To shine on my contemptible estate:
Lo, whilst I waited on my tender lambs,
And to sun’s parching heat display’d my cheeks,
God’s mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty
Will’d me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity:
Her aid she promised and assured success:
In complete glory she reveal’d herself;
And, whereas I was black and swart before,
With those clear rays which she infused on me
That beauty am I bless’d with which you see.
Ask me what question thou canst possible,
And I will answer unpremeditated:
My courage try by combat, if thou darest,
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate,
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate.

One of the drawbacks of such intensive cuts is that it severly reduces her role.  But the little we have of Joan is very impressive, all the more so since up until now there have been few decent roles for women in the history cycle.  Director Michael Hayes also creates some impressive shots – for example, when Joan’s nearly defeated and attempting to summon up demonic spirits to aid her, he zooms into her eyes and superimposes dancing figures onto her irises.  Such a trick would be commonplace now, but to achieve such an effect then and particlarly during a live broadcast is quite noteworthy.  Joan’s death is also another stand-out moment.  The flames are quite effective, as are her ear-splitting screams as the picture fades to black.

Back in England, the nobles are taking sides.  Given the cuts to the play and the number of characters we see, this isn’t particularity easy to follow and is probably one of the major drawbacks of condensing the play.  What is clear is that the Duke of Gloucester (John Ringham) is the protector of the young King, Henry VI (Terry Scully), and Winchester (Robert Lang) opposes Gloucester.

Both Ringham and Lang (familiar faces from previous episodes) give good performances and Scully manages (via his high-pitched tones) to indicate Henry’s youth and inexperience.  Another notable appearance is that of Mary Morris as Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Anjou.  Margaret would prove to be a major figure in the upcoming plays and Morris impresses here as she would do later on.  She was always an unusual actresses, with a style all of her own, and there’s more than a hint of that here.

Effectively, The Red Rose and the White stands as a prologue for the battles of the Wars of the Roses which will run for the remaining six episodes of the series.  It may not be the most distinguished part of An Age Of Kings, but thanks to some fine performances (particularly Eileen Atkins) it’s not without interest.

Next up – Episode Ten – The Fall of the Protector