an O Level student I had to write an essay on the development of
Prince Hal through Shakespeare's plays Henry IV parts one and two.
I had seen both plays when the RSC opened the Barbican Theatre with
them with an incredible cast (Gerard Murphy as Hal, Patrick Stewart
as Henry IV, Joss Ackland as Falstaff and Timothy Dalton as Hotspur
to mention but a few) and had been entranced by the vivid characters
and dramatic storytelling. Then in 1984 I went to see Henry V at
Stratford. A young Adrian Noble was directing and an unknown RSC
company actor called Kenneth Branagh was playing the king.
We saw the opening night in which
there were a few mishaps. Not least Henry getting the knee joint of
his leg armour locked when he knelt to pray after Agincourt which
meant he had to play the rest of the scene supported by Brian
Blessed's giant Duke of Exeter! (Several critics remarked on the
brilliance of playing Henry so overcome by the victory that he could
barely stand.) Despite this, two things were evident that night:
that one was watching the start of a meteoric career and that this
was a truly great play.
The Henry trilogy is Shakespeare's
masterpiece about the forging of British identity. All human life
is here in vivid technicolour warts and all from King to basest
thief. There is nothing perfect about Henry, his court or the
actions he takes. His decisions are political, his battles
pragmatic. Nor is he a man for whom kingship is easy. His soul is
troubled by the gulf between what he knows he must do and what he,
and many others, might like to do. These are messy plays in which
there are no winners, no good guys, no moral high ground, no easy
And this is, of course, why we come
back to them time and time again. They tell of a world we know all
too well; a hard place where nothing is straightforward; where it is
difficult to see which is the right path to take. In this sort of
world what we need, crave almost, is leadership. Henry is a leader
who boldly makes the decisions we don't want to have to make but
where he succeeds where so many leaders have failed, is that he
understands the hearts and minds of those he is leading and he
manages to engage their support and take them with him.
So Henry V has extraordinary
characters we can look up to. What about the action - a lot of
tramping about and fighting. Why is that of any interest to us?
2004 is the sixtieth anniversary of
D-Day. On it and the days following, hundreds of thousands of men
landed in France and fought their way inland across some of the very
fields which Henry and his men had crossed over 700 years earlier.
They were days packed with incredible acts of heroism, some of which
have become the stuff of legend, many of which will never be known
Is it the military efficiency of the
victory which impresses us? No. The elements of D-Day which come
up time and time again are not the months of meticulous preparation,
the almost unopposed landing on some beaches, the smooth liaison
between forces. They are the cock-ups, the failures, the disasters,
the miscalculations. We have no interest in simple success. We
tend to find it rather unattractive as if an overwhelming victory is
somehow unsporting. There is drama in the gliders which crashed
into trees in the wrong field in the middle of a crack Panzer
division. There is somehow less in the mission which goes like
clockwork with no casualties.
So why do we read Bravo Two Zero and
watch Zulu or Apollo 13? We have a natural fascination for watching
what extreme adversity brings out in people. Easy victory does not
breed heroes. We need heroes as much as we need leaders; role
models to follow, figures to look up to. The modern media tries to
create them all the time in curiously flawed guises; Beckham, Henman,
Rooney, Hussein. But these are not heroes. They are men with
talent who have chosen to compete in difficult sports. The heroes
at Agincourt and on D-Day, were men who, thrust against impossible
odds, showed incredible courage and resolve and through this
I once met a Paratrooper who had been
with Colonel H Jones in the Falklands. He said that all heroes were
either mad or dead or often, as in Colonel H Jones' case, both.
This is how disaster breeds heroes. Facing death narrows your
options; brings on a kind of madness - a madness to survive. (Fire
fighters on 9/11, Simon Weston, Shackleton.) Perhaps the real
challenge is to be a peacetime hero; a figure who is exemplary in
the way they conduct themselves through the mundane challenges of
everyday life. On the eve of Agincourt, Henry tells his doomed men
that they are all likely to die but that he can think of no better
company in which to die. Shortly after Tour de Force had first
staged Henry V, the man who had played our giant Duke of Exeter,
William Haden, told me he was going to die. It was in fact not until
early this year that it happened and in the interim he acted in
another of our productions, set up Shake-a-Leg and twice produced
Tour de Force in Saffron Walden quite apart from living a life as
husband, step-father and grandfather, friend and pint drinker.
William, like the men in the play,
was complex and contradictory, not pure or perfect, but he displayed
heroism and leadership in just the unassuming way that Shakespeare's
Henry does with one major difference; his battle was not over in a
matter of mere hours.
Tour de Force would like to dedicate
this production of Henry V to the friend they were honoured to be in
the company of, William 'Mad Dog' Haden.