The Theatreguide.London Review
Gielgud Theatre Winter 2002-03
Published anonymously in 1596, about the time Shakespeare was writing his Richards and Henries, this history play has occasionally been proposed as possibly by Shakespeare, and now a sizeable minority of scholars, after sophisticated analysis of the style, have argued that it be included in the official list.
And so the Royal Shakespeare Company have staged it, just to see how it plays.
And it turns out to be pretty good and very much like Shakespeare's known work. The main action is the conquest of France, so the play has plot similarities to Henry V, some of them very striking - for example, an insulting French ambassador and the reading of the disproportionate casualty lists after a battle.
There are several strong dramatic scenes, and the language has a definite Shakespearean feel to it, with his rhythms, grammar and sentence structure. There's even a direct quotation from the Sonnets, the line about lilies that fester smelling worse than weeds.
It's no King Lear, but I for one am pretty convinced.
The first act is devoted to a kind of testing of the King, as he falls for a married countess and tries to force his attentions on her, only to have her virtue conquer and reform him.
From there on it's pretty clear sailing as, aided by his son the Black Prince (father to the future Richard II, so this play fits right into Shakespeare's chronology), he marches triumphantly through his French wars.
Indeed, the only serious criticism to make of the play, and the only non-Shakespearean element, is that after that first act there isn't much depth psychology or introspection among the characters, as the play stays pretty close to the surface of things.
But there are powerful moments - the King's semi-comic attempt to write love poetry to the countess, her first gentle dissuasion and then angry renunciation of him and his change of heart, his refusal to come to his son's aid in battle so the glory will all be the younger man's.
There are several scenes in which honourable characters on both sides have occasion to assert their determination to keep their word or play by the rules of war even at great danger to themselves.
Anthony Clarkıs production is first rate, making use of the RSC's patented ability to suggest grand battles and ceremonial scenes with a handful of actors. David Rintoul is manly if a bit stolid as the king, Jamie Glover fiery as the Prince.
Caroline Fraser combines warm concern with steely virtue as the Countess, while Michael Thomas is more formidable and respect-worthy French King than his counterpart in Henry V. David Acton, Paul Bentall and Antony Byrne make much of a number of smaller roles.
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