|Once more unto the breech,
dear friends, once more
National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner decided to do the piece last summer, when the invasion of Iraq was looking increasingly imminent, and it was in rehearsals when the war was underway.
“For 400 years it has seemed the best available play about any war,” he said. “I’m not being controversial here. All I hope is that people will read the play in the context of what’s going on now.”
At one level, the play’s apparent glorification of war earned it a place on a Pentagon reading list for US soldiers.
But with closer inspection, Henry V lays bare the brutality of an army, its use of propaganda to justify aggression and the humiliation inflicted on the defeated.
Henry’s rousing speech “Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more” at the siege of Harfleur in 1415 resonated in a British colonel’s speech to his troops on the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
It was also cited by US General Norman Schwartzkopf during Desert Storm in 1991.
Cast in the role of the charismatic Henry V is Adrian Lester. He has received brilliant reviews for his performance in a modern-day production with Jeeps and machine guns as props.
His advisers, in suits and ties, put forth contorted and strained justifications for invading France, but have little difficulty in convincing an already determined monarch.
The king’s words, filled with references to God and victory, lead one to think of the religious fervour in Bush’s State of the Union address, in which God’s name was repeatedly invoked.
One tiny difference does stick out. Shakespeare’s Archbishop of Canterbury is pro-war; the current spiritual head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, was against.
The king of France proposes a compromise rejected by the English, who go on to win the battlefield with little loss of life to themselves, but terrible casualties to their enemy.
Henry, like the US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, goes on to say the French alone are to blame for the invasion.
Touching a nerve
In its original form, “Henry V” makes much of French arrogance and lustfulness, which helped make it such a box-office success in Shakespeare’s time, according to experts.
In Hytner’s version, however, “the director chose to avoid the temptation of being heavy-handed on the French,” commented actor Iain Mitchell, who appears as the Constable of France.
In one part of the play, disguised so as to mingle with his troops, Henry realises that he has lost touch with the ordinary men in his army; some doubt the legitimacy of the offensive – to which his response is not logical persuasion, but anger and scorn.
He also shows brutality, as when he sees to it that prisoners of war are executed – an episode that is often left out by theatre directors, and perhaps edited at the Pentagon too.
Even in recent history, the play has been edited and revised in order to boost morale during war.
Laurence Olivier made Henry V into a film during World War II in 1943, which ignored problematic scenes to deliver a patriotic message to the troops called up to liberate France.