We happy few

Being that it is Saint Crispin’s Day, I spent some time listening to a few versions of the famous speech in Henry V, and I was surprised at how radically different they seemed.  The touchstone modern performance is Kenneth Branagh’s, from the 1989 production. To my modern ear, this sounds right. It’s cinematic and calls to mind someone truly in the middle of his troops, urging them to action.

On the other end of the scale, the 1944 version by Lawrence Olivier, sounds too declamatory. You can hear the poetry, but not the blood and guts. Richard Burton’s performance, from 1951, is somewhere in between, though closer to Oliver than Branagh.

Part of the difference is clearly stylistic, and reflective of period. I don’t think anyone would do it in the manner of Olivier today. I think another factor is the stage itself. Branagh is quite literally speaking to an entire army; in a play there might be only six or seven people on stage in addition to Henry. If the king is only talking to a few advisers, it doesn’t quite make sense to ramp things up to the same level.  The versions I’ve seen have more or less taken that approach.

If I were going to try an experiment, I’d try having the king give that speech directly to the audience, as if they were the troops, and opening it up to the same level of exhortation as in the film version. Any directors out there agree with me, or am I totally crazy?


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