Thursday, 3 November 2011

Battle Cries.

Tonight's screening in the Early Modern Drama series was Olivier's glorious Henry V which still carries all before it in technicolor glory. Commissioned by Churchill it was made in 1944 as a morale boosting pageant, its release timed to coincide with the Normandy landings.

The film starts with a beautiful panoramic view of London, the silver thread of the Thames snaking its way past the towers and steeples of a city at rest with itself, in perfect harmony under William Walton's score. In we zoom to the playhouse, the great globe itself where bustled preparations for the afternoons matinee mirror the industry of preparation for the invasion itself. Everybody is involved regardless of class, gender, age. All united in readying themselves and the space to receive the play.

Soon it's on us. Leslie Banks' muscular chorus pulling us into the comic clerics conversing in the minstrels gallery above the stage. We follow their exit to the backstage world where make up is applied, costumes dusted down, and actors poise ready for their entrance.

The camera fixes here watching knights and page boys process onto the stage, set now for Henry's court. Then a beat. A second of empty frame and forward with one tentative step comes Olivier, not as a mighty God anointed King, but an actor, a nervous man with a slight cough, trying to get a feel for the house.

He is us and we are him, waiting for our cue. It's a brilliant moment of levelling. The messages are clear. Heroism is a human possibility and our duty is to act.

One of the most moving things about the film is to watch these our actors working in concert. George Robey, the great star of the Victorian Musical hall and friend of Henry Irving, plays the dwindling Falstaff. The pioneering Australian dancer Robert Helpman provides a comic turn as the Bishop of Ely, Matinee idol Robert Weston plays Pistol. Esmond Knight, himself blinded, earlier in the war, takes up Fluellen. Max Adrian, who would go on to be a star of the formative RSC, is an enigmatic Dauphin, John Laurie, an eminent Hamlet in his own right, but most famously remembered as Private Fraser in Dad's Army plays Scots captain Jamy and George Cole, who later found fame as Flash Harry in the St Trinian films and Arthur Daley in the eighties TV series Minder is a fresh faced boy. Most remarkably Renee Asherson, who played Princess Katherine, is still alive at the ripe old age of 96.

Any acting company at any moment of history will have a spread of youth and experience and one of the most magical things about the theatre is this sense of continuity. Olivier casting stars from the past and the future. This band of brothers united in a common cause and captured in a brief moment of time.


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