WAS Henry V the ideal king? Handsome, eloquent, steel-nerved and a military strategist still held in awe, he seems to be presented by Shakespeare as close to the perfect man.
Or not, as actor Eloise Winestock intimates when I talk to her about her forthcoming role in Bell Shakespeare’s post-modern “Henry V”, directed by Damien Ryan.
In getting into her role as Princess Katharine of France, affianced to Henry in a political deal to help reconcile the two nations, Winestock has taken note that Henry is also a take-no-prisoners kind of king who betrayed his best friend Sir John Falstaff, lurks around the army camps at night eavesdropping on his soldiers (“a little touch of Harry in the night”) and kills off half her relatives.
“Henry V” is the Shakespeare play the French love to hate, so you can imagine Princess Kate might have felt much the same way.
Winestock is astute, an articulate graduate of Ryan’s drama classes at Knox Grammar, the WA Academy of Performing Arts and Ryan’s company Sport by Jove, so imagining that she “is” Kate, how might she have felt about being married off to the young macho English king?
“Why would she have any desire for him?” Winestock replies, “I would have loathed to be married off to him… he invaded her country, killed her countrymen and is using her as a political pawn… she would probably hate him.”
And yet the scene between Henry and Kate is often played as a delightful bit of comedy.
“Some people,” she continues, “play it as if Katharine and Henry fall in love, but I think it’s more the intention to show that this is a political union.
“In that scene where he is trying to get to her, he has a really hard time.
“Maybe because he uses words so beautifully, because his rhetoric is quite stunning, that works for him – just a little.”
But at least the comedy in this scene comes at just the perfect time – “it is a little bubble of light”.
But maybe we are both being too negative, Winestock considers.
“It wouldn’t do to underestimate Henry, he won the Battle of Agincourt when his troops were totally outnumbered… nobody thought the English had a chance of winning,” she says.
Though Shakespeare doesn’t glorify militarism and director Damien Ryan likes exploring the grey areas of war, you can fairly bet the audience will be crying, along with the soldiers, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”
Bell Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, The Playhouse, June 13–28. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.