Nicholas Hytner on Henry V

Daniel Rosenthal interviews Nicholas Hytner about his production of Henry V

DR  Henry V is a play which over the years has been directly connected with wars that have been taking place − most famously Olivier's film during the Second World War, commissioned by the propaganda arm of the government, and more recently the Kenneth Branagh RSC production in 1984, in response to the Falklands conflict. Your production, Nick, responding to what was going on and is still going on in Iraq. Perhaps you could take us back to the timetable for deciding to do Henry V and the extent to which the preparation for the production and the rehearsals ran in parallel to what was happening in Iraq.

NH  We settled on it in the summer of last year, although I was already thinking about it a good deal earlier than that. All sorts of things came into play. I'd started to think it might be possible to present a season of plays with very low ticket prices. That would involve stripping this stage back to do the plays simply. I wanted my first production here as Director of the Theatre to be Shakespeare. I looked at the list of plays by Shakespeare that had never been done here − quite a short list − and Henry V kept leaping out. It's obviously a play that's suited to a very stripped-back staging, in fact somebody comes on at the beginning and says “There's no scenery here. Use your imagination. Get used to it.” So that was useful. But of course the most pertinent thing was that when I started to think about the play, we had not long ago been at war in Afghanistan. It seemed likely that in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York we would be marshalled by our leaders to go to war again. And it obviously felt like a play that would speak very directly now. The production, as you know, is uncomplicatedly in modern dress. It is, I hope, a straightforwardly contemporary production. Current events are perhaps illuminated by the play, but they also illuminate the play. I hope that what we're doing, by doing this play in this way at this time, is to make certain aspects of it very alive which wouldn't necessarily have been visible and audible twenty years ago. The whole point, it seems to me, about repeated productions of Shakespeare's plays is that you never see the definitive production of any of these plays. They all contain too much. Maybe over a lifetime's theatre-going you see enough productions of the great plays to get some kind of fully rounded view of them. But every production is partial.

DR  To what extent were particular details of the staging shaped in response to world events? For instance the opening scene where the bishops present the argument for war and the whole Salic Law business − terrifically done here with the handing out of copies of the dossier − it could have been the Iraq dossier being handed round the Cabinet table.

NH  In the theatre, we are entirely opportunistic and the dossier they hand round is indeed the Iraq dossier. I don't think that would have occurred if we hadn't been rehearsing it at the time we were. The war started during our first week's rehearsal. For the two or three weeks that the war was happening, there were certain things that ultimately happened that wouldn't have happened if the war hadn't finished, because I was quite simply nervous. As an example, the celebratory victory video. I don't think I would have gone there if the war had been long and bloody and when we opened there were still British soldiers being killed. As the war finished and as scepticism returned and we were looking at it with cooler heads, that which is propagandistic about the play and that within the play which is hagiographic about the king felt very familiar. Shakespeare's scepticism (which I think in the play runs hand-in-hand with his visceral admiration of the king's qualities of leadership and oratory) seemed clearer and clearer as the rehearsal period went on, and as my frankly ambiguous response to the war crystalised. There's a wide variety of views, I'm sure, among the people who put this show onto the stage. In a sense my response to the current war is neither here nor there. Our collective response to the play is more important. Certain things, once we decided we would have the video element, became easier to do. For instance, the scene with the French princess and the chaperone, Alice, which historically has been comic relief, directly follows a scene in which the king explicitly threatens to rape and pillage Harfleur, to attack the children, women and old people of Harfleur, physically to defile them. If you are sitting in Paris and you have at loose in your country a man who must seem to you like a rapacious thug (whatever we the audience think of Henry V, to a French princess he's a rapacious thug), and you decide to sit down and learn the English for body parts, it feels really sinister. By re-running part of Henry's threatening speech to the citizens of Harfleur on video with French sub-titles, we were able to give that scene a context which I believe is absolutely a hundred per cent Shakespeare. I've seen only a handful of productions of Henry V. Maybe that scene has been put firmly in its very specific context before, but maybe because of the world we're living in and the story that's now being told, that particular thing came out more clearly in this show than in others.

DR  You mentioned the victory speech, and there's a strong echo there of how Olivier recalled making his film while the Second World War was still on, talking about his responsibilities and what he could and couldn't do. I think that brings us on to the question of Henry's war crimes and the things that Olivier cut from the play − the threats to Harfleur, the killing of the prisoners − he fillets away all the moments that make you look at Henry as a far from all-white hero, particularly on the execution of Bardolph. Olivier's film cut the scene completely. In a recent production by Edward Hall at the RSC, he showed Bardolph being hanged. You've taken it a number of steps further by showing the king carrying out the execution himself. Would you talk about where that came from?

NH  There are certain things in every Shakespeare production which are suggested by the text but not necessarily sanctioned by it. Of the contemporary Shakespeare texts, the Quarto is generally less reliable than the Folio. But neither Quarto nor Folio contains many stage directions. If you buy and read a Shakespeare play, most of the stage directions will have been provided by the contemporary editor. To deal with the killing of the French prisoners first. I think they must have been killed on the Elizabethan stage because there is a Folio stage direction saying something like “Enter the King, the English army and their four French prisoners.” At the end of the scene, he tells his army to kill the prisoners. So you assume somebody kills them or at the least takes them off in an aggressive way to kill them off-stage. By the time we were really into rehearsing that scene, by the time this cast of actors had really started to inhabit the notion that they were the contemporary British army, it felt impossible to most of them to carry out that order. I hope that one of the things this production is, is respectful of the common British soldier. There has been a recent performance tradition which writes the English army off as thugs. It didn't seem to me that we were sending thugs into Iraq. It seemed that we were sending responsible, highly trained men and I didn't particularly want to put on this stage something which was an insult to people who have more difficult jobs than we can ever imagine. The fact that most of Henry's army, in effect, mutinied at that point came out of those two main things: our reluctance to insult the common soldier, and the actors' conviction that the soldiers wouldn't be able to carry out that order. So the French prisoners are in the end mown down by the arch loyalist who you could imagine being the one who would do that.

As to the execution of Bardolph. Recent performance tradition has brought Bardolph on stage to be executed: it's obviously good theatre, it's very effective; you see the consequences of the king's actions. When you see all three plays together (Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V) the execution of Bardolph is a very very affecting moment because in the earlier plays you've seen the king muck around with Bardolph. Because of our little home-video reminder of the king knocking about the pub in Eastcheap, it seemed that it would be good story-telling, proper theatre, to execute Bardolph on stage. That the king executes him personally came fairly late in rehearsal. It came out of something that Adrian Lester showed me which I had not at all caught up with when studying the play on the desk. You never really get the full picture, never start to understand until you're with actors whose imaginations are engaged in a rehearsal room. One of the most puzzling things about the play, when I was preparing to go into rehearsal, was the end of Act III, the end of the first half in this production, when the French herald comes on demanding ransom, threatening the English army. This brilliantly effective orator, this highly disciplined and controlled leader starts to speak in a circular, incoherent, inarticulate fashion, and you just don't get what he's up to. It was through Adrian that we all realised − he's losing it. He's backed right up against a wall. He has a tiny army, it's hungry, it's tired, it's cold, it's sick, and there's a vast French army the other side of the river getting ready to pull them to pieces. He knows that what he's done is to ride into the jaws of defeat. And he's barely in control of the way he's speaking. As we rehearsed the scene, in depth and many times, Adrian started to realise that when he comes on, Henry is losing it. The Duke of Exeter is doing effective work at a bridge not far away, but on the other side of the bridge is an army goodness knows how many times as big. The English army isn't really any good any more. It was from knowing that he wasn't in control of himself that it felt emotionally correct that we should take a small liberty with the text. Honestly, my first idea was that Bardolph should come on with the firing squad, they would go off and we would hear the shooting off-stage. But in rehearsal the idea occurred that this leader, who was no longer in control of himself, would be so angry to have been let down by one of his former companions, so angry to be reminded of who he once was, that he might just pull out a gun and do it himself. So that's what happened.

DR  And you have the line there: “We would have all such offenders so cut off” to follow it as further textual justification.

NH  Yeah, you're always looking to suit the action to the word: that's what Shakespeare would have done. It's not my fault!

DR  In your discussions with Adrian Lester, did you send him back to the Henry IV plays to get the back-story to the character?

NH  In my experience you don't have to send an actor to anything. They are voraciously curious, voracious readers. Most of this company had read the Henry IV plays within a couple of weeks of rehearsal and I think Adrian knew them very well before we started. The rehearsal room was littered with material about the historical Henry V and about contemporary warfare. People were bringing stuff in all the time. A really creative, great actor like Adrian will always bring more to the rehearsal room than the director can bring to the actor.

DR  The violence of Henry's temper is more powerful than in other productions I've seen.

NH  These things come spontaneously in rehearsal as you are working through the play and trying out what's truthful. When I first met Adrian to discuss doing the play, I didn't know that we'd be setting it now, contemporarily. I had a hunch that there would be a contemporary element to it but I think at that time we discussed how important the medieval world was to the play. As time passed, I started to feel it would be perverse to do this play at this time in what I would call an unconventional, untraditional way. I think we're doing it conventionally and traditionally. This play was done in modern dress in 1599. It wouldn't have particularly occurred to the Lord Chamberlain's men that it was necessary to deck themselves out in historically accurate clothes of the early 15th century. It seemed perverse and irresponsible not to have presented it now as a contemporary play. Adrian and I met again and I shared this thought with him, but he was there already. There is always a doubleness to Shakespeare. I think Adrian is unfailingly alert to the King's inspirational qualities. Henry is a brilliant leader, he's also charismatic and on occasions a very witty man. It says a huge amount for Adrian's power as an actor that you accept that Henry can shoot Bardolph and then completely undercut what the Chorus tells you you're about to see – a little touch of Harry in the night, moving from campfire to campfire, raising morale. He then goes and does exactly the opposite. In fact by the end of that little foray into the English camp you've got one English soldier who wants to punch him in the face. He then moves into a wonderful soliloquy which nonetheless stinks of something really difficult to stomach. How hard to be a king, how easy to be a common man whose life consists of honest labour, who goes to bed, full stomach, sleeps soundly, no cares in the world. The wonderful way this playwright works is that the king is saying that and you've just seen these common men whose life is not like that at all. They've been schlepped over to France and they're about to be fed to the French beast. They're not having a good life at all. They're having a terrible life on account of the fact that their leader has behaved as if they don't matter at all. Moment by moment, you believe everything that's being told to you; it's the juxtaposition that you're left to work out for yourself. Adrian meanwhile has moved from having his old companion executed, to mucking around with his soldiers' morale, to self pity which is hard to stomach. Two and a half minutes later he's on stage doing the St Crispin's day speech in a way which completely carries the audience and really works. You go with him. You think, Yes! We are a band of brothers. Gentlemen in England will indeed think themselves accursed they were not here. That is to a large extent the cunning of the writing, and to an equally large extent the power of the actor. By the end of the play, in this bizarre scene, this wonderful metaphor of the final scene, where he woos the French princess who has absolutely no choice but to marry him, he has the audience purring with delight. And yet what's he doing other than saying “I have conquered you and now you must love me. Dance in the streets, you bastards. Throw flowers. We have liberated you. You have lost the fight.”

DR  And he's previously made us feel sorry for the poor chap who's not very experienced with women. You've cut the scene which bridges from that, with Pistol and Llewellyn. I'm interested in why you've done that.

NH  The ideology of cutting is very interesting. It's not a play which I think merits being three and three quarter hours long. Very few plays do. Olivier, for his film cut more than half the play. I think Ken ranagh cut not quite as much. Obviously movies have to be shorter than stage plays do. But you can see the ideology behind Olivier's cutting very clearly, beyond the desire to shorten it. He cuts out everything that might complicate the portrait of the king as inspirational leader and the English as courageous, victorious underdogs. Absolutely responsible to 1944 in a way in which I hope we are responsible to a much more broad, ambiguous, much less united 2003. Even in Ken's film, which is much more honest about the consequences of war, he nevertheless pulls the audience into identifying with a hero who is himself tortured by the ambiguity of his position. Adrian's king is more self-aware and a great deal more ruthless. Even Ken cut the killing of the prisoners. To make it three hours long, rather than three and three quarters, I cut what I think are the boring bits – I cut what seemed least interesting to me. Can I therefore promise that I haven't cut ideologically? I can't promise that. In a sense I would say, what do I know of the forces controlling me? Why do I find these things boring? I do know that I find a lot of Shakespeare's comic writing tricky. I regret not finding out that Mistress Quickly has died and Pistol has to turn bawd, but I don't regret not seeing Pistol beaten about the head with a leek by Llewellyn. There may still be people who fall off their seats with laughter at the sight of a man attacking another man with a leek...

Audience member:

Isn't the Pistol/Llewellyn scene there to cover a big costume change? The first scene after it is Burgundy when everybody comes on in their posh frocks rather than their fighting gear.

NH I think the point you raise is a very good one. A huge amount of Shakespeare's dramaturgy is dictated by the necessity of playing epic plays with sixteen actors. Very often he'll throw in a scene, as you say, to cover a quick change. You can always see other reasons for the scene beyond that. You're probably right, and there will be some people who will miss that scene. But... it's not there.

Audience member:

I haven't seen the production yet, so apologies if my question betrays my ignorance. In the pre-battle scene, when Henry goes round talking to the troops – how do you reconcile the king's uncertainty, his ignorance of the true state of his army, with his great leadership qualities?

NH The answer is that through the actor you suggest that it is probably as common as it's not that great leaders have dark nights of the soul when they worry desperately that the house of cards might come falling down and they might have got it all wrong. I would speculate that our prime minister is like that and the American president isn't. That is speculation. What I know is that I have directed enough shows to know that invariably I can come in of a morning and be confident and invite the actors' trust, even if the trust that I am inviting is in the position – “I don't know about this, let's find out about it together. I know we will find the answer.” I'm not interested in the kind of director, and I know there are some, who unburden their uncertainty onto the actors. That isn't, to me, direction. Direction is not concealing the uncertainty but channelling it creatively into something that will give the team confidence. I bet the majority of effective leaders have confidence crises, and I don't think the two things are irreconcilable. And that's one of the things this play is about.

DR I wanted to ask about the impact of the Travelex £10 Season. Are you getting a sense now of the impact on audience profile and the kind of people coming into the National?

NH There's a kind of press obsession with the notion that there's a particular kind of audience that's good and another kind of audience that's bad, which is not an obsession I share. What I want is for the National to be national, and for all sorts to be here. This theatre is an amphitheatre and amphitheatres are symbols of democracy. Twenty-five hundred years ago, that's why theatres were built this shape – everyone could see everyone else, when the whole community gathered. It always seems a pity to me when our theatre is populated only by a small section of the community. It was my conviction that we were beginning to price ourselves out of the market and we needed to find a dramatic way of tracking down the people who wanted to come here but weren't coming because they thought it was out of reach. The Travelex £10 Season was our main strategy to do that. And is it working? Well, I'm now going to have to boast for about 45 seconds. It's summer and, for London theatre, summer has always been a really tough period. In this theatre in particular, in the last fifteen years, unless there's been a musical running, we've had fantastic trouble filling seats over the summer. In fact, all seats in our theatres are currently full. This is terrific. (It's also a phenomenal run of luck we're having. Enjoy it while it lasts, it always goes up and down, and any minute now there will be a run of turkeys, I promise you.) One thing we already know is that 30% of the audience for Henry V have not been to the National before. Interestingly, a significant proportion who have booked for His Girl Friday have not been before. We're going to be able to do this £10 thing for at least three years, for half the year. Next season, I don't suppose we'll want to have a show for which 30% are first-timers. We'll start wanting those first-timers to come back more often. In the end what matters to me is that it's full and you can feel that the place is alive and buzzing with all sorts of different people. I'm also very relaxed about the idea that some plays are attractive to some people and not to others. That's fine too.

DR What about the other way round? What about the impact of less revenue coming in on production budgets and the time you need to get the shows turned round?

NH We're paying for it in various different ways. Production budgets are lower. We're asking designers and directors to be bold and imaginative with less money, and that seems to be working. I think this stage [the Olivier] is such a beautiful and harmonious space that it works very well stripped back, when the imagination is being brought into play, it also works very well when the full spectacular is done on it. I've been least happy with the work I've done here when I've tried to do a production which would have been better if more money had been spent on it. So we're spending less on production costs, and because our shows are lighter on their feet, we can do more of them. We don't have to go dark for technical rehearsals. We can do a tech on this stage during the day, stop at five o'clock, whisk that set off and whisk another set on. We're getting about 25 extra performances during this six months, which increases revenue. We have this tremendous sponsorship from Travelex, and also, it's not rocket science in retrospect, but at low prices we're full, at higher prices we weren't. Full at lower prices is, in the end, just as lucrative as 60% at higher prices. So at the moment we're doing OK.

DR When you did Winter's Tale in the Olivier in 2001, you talked about wanting to return Shakespeare at the National to the bigger public spaces when there had been a tendency for Shakespeare to be in the Cottesloe. Are you saying that Shakespeare's plays will not be seen in the Cottesloe again? Or will that be dependent on which directors and which plays come together?

NH I'll never say never, because someone might come along with an astonishing ripping apart of a play that could only be done in the Cottesloe. But I'm not keen on that because I think the National exists in a much wider, national, ecology and there are places where people do famous plays small, detailed, forensically examined, beautifully, but ultimately explicitly. And I think that is the proper function of the smaller theatres who can do revealing, experimental, groundbreaking work, with the audience they keep clasped tight to their bosom, which is part of their remit. I've no problem at all with that, but this is the 'national' theatre. When we finish Henry V we'll have done 65 performances and I think we'll have played to an average of 95%. I think it would have been completely untrue to our remit to have done this show in the Cottesloe where there are only 300 seats. The vast majority of those people who have come would have been unable to have come. It's banal but simple. This current season, there are no old plays in the Cottesloe. This time next year we will be doing a play which I very much doubt anyone here has seen, and that is the kind of old play we should be doing in the Cottesloe.

Audience question:

What are your plans for new writing?

NH More than half of the work this year is brand new. All the work in the Cottesloe is brand new. Of the six shows currently running, three are brand new. A fourth is an old play done in a version that's not been seen before. The season in the Loft last year was a tremendous incentive to that, but the Loft was only licensed for six months and was designed as a temporary intervention. But there is no call for the National to have a 100-seat theatre on our premises permanently because there are absolutely wonderful 100-seat theatres doing new work all over London. We should be doing the stuff nobody else could do. There's no other theatre in the country which could have done Owen McCafferty's Scenes from the Big Picture because it requires 21 actors. It ran very successfully in the Cottesloe, and it's a really wonderful play. That's what we have to be doing because no-one else can do it. We have to work on a national, epic scale most of the time. One of my main tasks is to discover a new generation of writers who can write new stuff for the Olivier stage. The ones who can are, by and large, very senior writers, and they're either called David, Tom or Alan.

Audience member:

Can I just thank the stage crew for doing a wonderful job on Henry V? I didn't see them working but it was just wonderful.

NH I completely agree with you

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Daniel Rosenthal writes on theatre for The Times and The Independent on Sunday